Context in systemic functional linguistics

Towards scalar supervenience?

Authored by: Tom Bartlett

The Routledge Handbook of Systemic Functional Linguistics

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415748407
eBook ISBN: 9781315413891
Adobe ISBN: 9781315413884


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Systemic functional linguistics (SFL) has been described as an extravagant model of language with a bewildering array of technical terms, many of which seem, at first sight, to refer to the same concept (see Bateman, this volume). While, for proponents of other theories, this is seen as an unnecessary encumbrance, the reason for this extravagance lies in SFL’s uniqueness as an exotropic theory of language that locates ‘language in the social environment’ (Hasan 2005, 2009: 37). By this definition, Hasan is simultaneously differentiating SFL from formalist theories of language, which do not locate language in the social environment, and from general sociolinguistics, which does not claim to be an integrated theory of language. 1 In line with this broad perspective, SFL aims to account in an integrated way for: meaning-to-form relations within language (linguistics); the relationship between language as a social construct and its contexts of use (sociology); and the acquisition and development of the language system by individuals as members of social groups (social psychology). The key points uniting these themes are that language is learnt in context, is used in context by socialised speakers, and is altered as a system by its use in various contexts. Context is therefore a unifying element within the overall architecture of SFL, linking language as system and instance (langue and parole) to the material conditions of those who use it, in accordance with Halliday’s Marxist orientation towards language and linguistics. 2

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