Michael Halliday

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Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday (often M.A.K. Halliday) (born 1925) is a British linguist who developed an internationally influential grammar model, the systemic functional grammar (which also goes by the name of systemic functional linguistics [SFL]).

Halliday was born and raised in England. He took a BA Honours degree in Modern Chinese Language and Literature (Mandarin) at the University of London. He then lived for three years in China, where he studied under Luo Changpei at Peking University and under Wang Li at Lingnan University, before returning to take a PhD in Chinese Linguistics at Cambridge. Having taught Chinese for a number of years, he changed his field of specialisation to linguistics, and developed systemic functional grammar, elaborating on the foundations laid by his British teacher J. R. Firth and a group of European linguists of the early 20th century, the Prague School. His seminal paper on this model was published in 1961. He became the Professor of Linguistics at the University of London in 1965. In 1976 he moved to Australia as Foundation Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, where he remained until he retired. The impact of his work extends beyond linguistics into the study of visual and multimodal communication, and he is considered to have founded the field of social semiotics. He has worked in various regions of language study, both theoretical and applied, and has been especially concerned with applying the understanding of the basic principles of language to the theory and practices of education. He received the status of emeritus professor of the University of Sydney and Macquarie University, Sydney, in 1987. With his seminal lecture "New Ways of Meaning: the Challenge to Applied Linguistics" held at the AILA conference in Saloniki (1990), he became one of the pioneers of eco-critical discourse analysis (a discipline of ecolinguistics).

Halliday describes himself first and foremost as a grammarian. The first in his recently published 10 volumes of Collected Works is titled On Grammar. He adopted the term 'systemic-functional' for his linguistic approach to describe two dimensions of language. Language is 'systemic' because it is 'paradigmatically organised'. What this means is that any 'piece' of language on any scale can be described as the output of a system of choices. For instance, a major clause must display some structure that is the formal realization of a choice from the system of 'voice', i.e. it must be either 'middle' or 'effective', where 'effective' leads to the further choice of 'operative' (otherwise known as 'active') or 'receptive' (otherwise known as 'passive').

Halliday (1975) identifies seven functions that language has for children in their early years. Children are motivated to acquire language because it serves certain purposes or functions for them. The first four functions help the child to satisfy physical, emotional and social needs. Halliday calls them instrumental, regulatory, interactional, and personal functions.

  • Instrumental: This is when the child uses language to express their needs (e.g.'Want juice')
  • Regulatory: This is where language is used to tell others what to do (e.g. 'Go away')
  • Interactional: Here language is used to make contact with others and form relationships (e.g. 'Love you, mummy')
  • Personal: This is the use of language to express feelings, opinions, and individual identity (e.g. 'Me good girl')

The next three functions are heuristic, imaginative, and representational, all helping the child to come to terms with his or her environment.

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