Systemic functional linguistics and the clause

The experiential metafunction

Authored by: Kristin Davidse

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


 Download Chapter



To broach the experiential analysis of the clause in systemic functional linguistics (SFL), it is essential to start from the principled distinction between theory and description made by Halliday (1961; 1994: xxxiv). Linguistic theories specify one’s fundamental assumptions about language and the nature of the linguistic sign. It is within these assumptions that the facts of a language are described – that is, its categories identified and interpreted. The theoretical assumptions of SFL relevant to the experiential organisation of the clause are as follows.

Assuming Hjelmslev’s (1961 [1943]) view of the linguistic sign, a distinction is made between semantic purport, that factor of the content which is inter-translatable between languages, and coded meaning, which is language-specific. The lexicogrammatical structures and systems of an individual language ‘form’ its specific semantics, ‘just as an open net casts its shadow down an undivided surface’ (Hjelmslev 1961 [1943]: 57). 1 This coding relation commits analysts to the requirement that ‘all the categories employed must be clearly “there” in the grammar of the language’ (Halliday 1994: xix).

The grammar is a purely abstract code, which can be looked at only through the meaning or through the expression. In Halliday’s (1985: xxxv) view, ‘our understanding of the meaning system itself is very deficient; so the face of the grammar that is turned towards the semantics is hardly illuminated at all’; hence the code has to be cracked basically through the form.

Besides the coding (or ‘realisation’) relation between semantics and lexicogrammar, the second basic semiotic relation is that of instantiation (Halliday 1992). It defines structures and systems at various levels of delicacy (Halliday 1961: 267), ultimately linking the abstract language system to its concrete instantiations, or usage tokens (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004: 21).

Grammar and lexicon are viewed as one unified resource, with lexis as the ‘most delicate grammar’ (Halliday 1961: 267).

The whole clause, rather than the verb, determines experiential semantics (Halliday 1961, 1967a), which are conceived of as process-participant configurations (that is, interactions between, or relations involving, things) to which circumstances may be related.

Whilst being schematisable into general intransitive and transitive structures, experiential semantics involve distinct types of configuration in three primary domains: (a) material, (b) mental and (c) relational – that is, (a) actions and events observed ‘out there’ in the material world, (b) conscious mental processing experienced ‘in here’, in the ‘egoic’ field (Whorf 1956: 163ff) and (c) relational processes such as attribution and identification.

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.