Michael Halliday

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M.A.K. Halliday, 2011.

Michael Alexander Kirkwood (M.A.K.) Halliday (born 13 April 1925) is a British linguist who developed the internationally influential systemic functional linguistic model of language.



  • Any text in spoken English is organized into what may be called 'information units'. (...) this is not determined (...) by constituent structure. Rather could it be said that the distribution of information specifies a distinct structure on a different plan. (...) Information structure is realized phonologically by 'tonality', the distribution of the text into tone groups.
    • Michael Halliday Notes on transitivity and theme in English: Part 2, 1967. p. 200 cited in: Klaus von Heusinger "Information Structure and the Partition of Sentence Meaning". In: Eva Hajičová (2002) Form, Meaning and Function. p. 287

The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching, 1964[edit]

Michael Halliday, The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching, 1964

  • It is part of the task of linguistics to describe texts, and all texts, including those prose or verse, which fall within any definition of literature and are accessible to analysis by the existing methods of linguistics.
    • p. 1.
  • We should not, perhaps, take it for granted that a description in terms of a formalised model, which has certain properties lacking in those derived from models of another kind, will necessarily be the best description for all of the very diverse purposes for which the descriptions of languages are needed. In assessing the value of a description, it is reasonable to ask whether it has proved useful for the purposes for which it was intended.
    • p. 13. cited in: David Brazil (1995) A Grammar of Speech. p. 9.

1970s and later[edit]

  • Saussure took the sign as the organizing concept for linguistic structure, using it to express the conventional nature of language in the phrase "l'arbitraire du signe". This has the effect of highlighting what is, in fact, the one point of arbitrariness in the system, namely the phonological shape of words, and hence allows the non-arbitrariness of the rest to emerge with greater clarity. An example of something that is distinctly non-arbitrary is the way different kinds of meaning in language are expressed by different kinds of grammatical structure, as appears when linguistic structure is interpreted in functional terms.
    • Michael Halliday (1977). "Ideas about Language" Reprinted in Volume 3 of MAK Halliday's Collected Works. Edited by J.J. Webster. London: Continuum. p113.
  • A child learning his [her] mother tongue is learning how to name; he [she] is building up a meaning potential in respect of a limited number of social functions. These functions [instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, heuristic, and imaginative] constitute the semiotic environment of a very small child, and may be thought of as universals of human culture
    • Michael Halliday (1978, p. 121) as cited in: Harry Daniels, Michael Cole, James V. Wertsch (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky. p. 148.
  • Traditionally, grammar has always been a grammar of written language: and it has always been a product grammar" ['Product' is here used as one term of the Hjelmslevian pair process/product.] A process/product distinction is a relevant one for linguists because it corresponds to that between our experience of speech and our experience of writing: writing exists whereas speech happens.
    • Michael Halliday (1985, p. xxiii) cited in: David Brazil (1995) A Grammar of Speech. p. 10.
  • The text is a product in the sense that it is an output, something that can be recorded and studied, having a certain construction that can be represented in systematic terms. It is a process in the sense of a continuous process of semantic choice, a movement through the network of meaning potential, with each set of choices constituting the environment for a further set.
    • Michael Halliday (1985) cited in: Xueyan Yang (2010) Modelling Text As Process. p. 20.
  • The human sciences have to assume at least an equal responsibility in establishing the foundations of knowledge.
    • Michael Halliday (1987) cited in: Margaret Laing, Keith Williamson (1994) Speaking in Our Tongues. p. 99.
  • I see it as part of the development of the field. I would always emphasize how much I share with other linguists: I've never either felt particularly distinct or wanted to be distinct. I never saw myself as a theorist; I only became interested in theory, in the first place, because, in the theoretical approaches that I had access to, I didn't find certain areas developed enough to enable me to explore the questions that I was interested in.
  • A physical system is just that: a physical system. What is systematized is matter itself, and the processes in which the system is realized are also material. But a biological system is more complex: it is both biological and physical — it is matter with the added component of life; and a social system is more complex still: it is physical, and biological, with the added component of social order, or value. … A semiotic system is still one step further in complexity: it is physical, and biological, and social —and also semiotic: what is being systematized is meaning. In evolutionary terms, it is a system of the fourth order of complexity
    • Michael Halliday (2005, p. 68) as cited in: Andrew Halliday and Marion Glaser (2011) "A Management Perspective on Social Ecological Systems". In: Human Ecology Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2011.
  • [... language, as an example of a semiotic system, contains all four levels of organization as follows:]
    First, it is transmitted physically, by sound waves traveling through the air; secondly, it is produced and received biologically, by the human brain and its associated organs of speech and hearing; thirdly it is exchanged socially, in contexts set up and defined by the social structure; and fourthly it is organized semiotically as a system of meanings
    • Michael Halliday (2006, p. 68) as cited in: Andrew Halliday and Marion Glaser (2011).

Explorations in the functions of language, 1973[edit]

  • In the relative orientation of different social groups towards the various functions of language in given contexts and towards the different areas of meaning that may be explored within a given function
    • p. xiv cited in: Piet Van de Craen (2007) Van Brussel gesproken. p. 118.
  • The grammatical system has … a functional input and a structural output; it provides the mechanism for different functions to be combined in one utterance
    • p. 35 cited in: Terence Odlin (1994) Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar. p. 193.
  • [interpersonal meaning] embodies all use of language to express social and personal relations, including all forms of the speaker's intrusion into the speech situation and the speech act.
    • p. 41 cited in: Sin-wai Chan (2004) A dictionary of translation technology. p. 113.
  • Language... is a range of possibilities, and an open end set of options in behavior that are available to the individual in his existence as social man. The context of culture is the environment of any particular selection that is made within them... The context of culture defines the potential, the range of possibilities that are open. The actual choice among these possibilities takes place within a given context of situation.
    • p. 49 cited in: William O. Beeman (1986) Language, Status, and Power in Iran. p. 65.
  • Foregrounding, as I understand it, is prominence that is motivated
    • p. 112 cited in: Laura Hidalgo-Downing (2000) Negation, Text Worlds, and Discourse. p. 4.

Learning How to Mean--Explorations in the Development of Language, 1975[edit]

Michael Halliday, Learning How to Mean--Explorations in the Development of Language, 1975

  • … language has evolved in the service of particular human needs … what is really significant is that this functional principle is carried over and built into the grammar, so that the internal organization of the grammar system is also functional in character.
    • p. 16 cited in Constant Leung, Brian V. Street (2012) English a Changing Medium for Education. p. 5.
  • [The construal of context as a semiotic construct accompanies the construal of language as a metafunctionally organized system because of the realizational relationship between the two. And it is this relationship which helps to explain how language is learned:]
    It is this that enables, and disposes, the child to learn the lexicogrammar: since the system is organized along functional lines, it relates closely to what the child can see language doing as he observes it going on around him.
    • p. 122 cited in: M.A.K. Halliday, Jonathan Webster (2006) The Language of Early Childhood. p. 289.
  • What makes learning possible is that the coding imposed by the mother tongue corresponds to a possible mode of perception and interpretation of the environment. A green car can be analysed experientially as carness qualified by greenness, if that is the way the system works.
    • p. 140 cited in: Clare Painter (2005) Learning Through Language In Early Childhood. p. 64.

Cohesion in English (English Language), 1976[edit]

Michael Halliday, Cohesion in English (English Language), 1976

  • The interpersonal function [of language] is the function “to establish, maintain, and specify relations between members of societies”
    • p. xix cited in: Sanna-Kaisa Tanskanen (2010) Discourses in Interaction. p. 118.
  • [A register is constituted by] the linguistic features which are typically associated with a configuration of situational features - with particular values of the field, mode and tenor.
    • p. 22 cited in: Helen Leckie-Tarry (1998) Language and Context. p. 6.
  • [Register] is set of meanings, the configuration of semantic patterns, that are typically drawn upon under the specified conditions, along with the words and structures that are used in the realization of these meanings.
    • p. 23 cited in: Helen Leckie-Tarry (1998) Language and Context. p. 6.
  • The theme is what is being talked about, the point of departure for the clause as message, and the speaker has within certain limits the option of selecting any element in the clause as thematic.
    • p. 212.

Quotes about Michael Halliday[edit]

  • The founder of systemic-functional linguistics, Michael Halliday pioneered the analysis of language in its social context. He convincingly reestablished the centrality of meaning in understanding how language functions after the domination of linguistic research by CHOMSKY's generative grammar model.
    • Michaël Byram (2000) Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. p. 254.
  • In 1978, Michael halliday wrote Language as Social Semiotic, which revolutionized the way that we think about language in context
    • Lesley Mandel Morrow, Robert Rueda, Diane Lapp (2010) Handbook of Research on Literacy and Diversity. p. 164.

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