[xmca] LCA: Language as social semiotic

From: Phil Chappell (philchappell@mac.com)
Date: Sat Jul 02 2005 - 05:22:43 PDT

Dear All,

At this juncture, I thought it might productive to consider some
general concepts of Halliday's sociosemiotic theory of language before
we temporarily leave Gordon's discussion and embark on our discussion
of Bernstein (with Harry and Ruqaiya). Many of these concepts are
evident in the paper by MAKH that we have been discussing, my purpose
is to "strip them bare" for people generally unfamiliar with the
theory. Halliday once described his main interests through a couple of
questions: "What is the role of language in the transmission of
culture?" and "How is it that the ordinary everyday use of the
language, in the home, in the neighbourhood and so on, acts as an
effective channel for communicating the social system?". I've used
Halliday's collection entitled, "Language as social semiotic: the
social interpretation of language and meaning", pp 108-126 to briefly
summarise ( a long listserv post but a drop in the ocean vis-a-vis MAKH
and colleagues'/contempories' work) the general concepts behind MAKH's
answers to these questions - those close to the theory may either
ignore or read and correct me...the text I am using was published in

The essential concepts for MAKH's theory are *text, *the situation,
*the text variety or register, *the code (cf Bernstein) and *the social
structure. I'll paraphrase these below (liberally - please don't quote
from here, the reference to the original source is provided below).
It's interesting to think how these constructs might apply to the
mediational theory of mind that lies behind AT - next week's papers
will delve rather deeply into the construct of mediation, amongst

1) MAKH's concept of text - "the instances of lingusitic interaction in
which people actually engage" - is seen as a semantic unit - "the basic
unit of the semantic process". A text represents "what is meant",
selected from the entire set of options that constitute what *can* be
meant. This actualised meaning potential is drawn from the total
meaning potential of the system to which members of a culture have
access in the given language, and can be characterised in two ways - i)
the "context of situation" and ii) the "context of culture" (drawn from
the work of Malinowski). "Interpreted in the context of culture, it is
the entire semantic system of the language. This is a fiction,
something we cannot hope to describe. Interpreted in the context of
situation, it is the particular semantic system, or set of subsystems,
which is associated with a particular type of situation or social
context. This too is a fiction, but it is something that may be more
easily describable".

2) The situation is still at a level of abstraction, and refers to the
environment in which the text is realised - a representation of the
environment of particular general categories relevant to the text.
Importantly, the context of situation may be totally remote from what
what is going on around the act of speaking or writing. At a more
abstract level, Halliday refers to "social context" as a semiotic
structure - "a constellation of meanings deriving from the semiotic
system that constitutes the culture" (this latter term, social context,
is attributed to Bernstein). In one respect, the social context
accounts for the semantic configurations that a speaker will typically
fashion into a text; however, there is in a sense a dialectic at work
here (where what is said can generate context as well as context
generating what is said) which requires an understanding of the three
dimensions of the semiotic structure of the context of situation type -
1) field - "the social action in which the text is embedded", including
the subject matter, 2) tenor - the set of role relationships among the
participants, 3) mode - the function assigned to language in the
overall social situation. Together, field, tenor and mode provide a
conceptual framework for conceiving the semiotic environment in which
people make and exchange meanings (not to be confused with the conduit
metaphor c.f. Reddy). Specifying the semantic properties of the context
of situation in terms of field, tenor and mode allows for reasonably
meaningful predictions about the semantic properties of texts
associated with the context, however a concept of text variety, or
register as an intermediary is helpful to fine tune these predictions.

3) Register, "the configuration of semantic resources that the member
of a culture typically associates with a situation type", is the sum of
meanings that can be accessed in a given social context. Registers are
part of everyday experience, and speakers usually have no problem
recognising the semantic options that are associated with a particular
situation type. "A register is what you are speaking (at the time)
determined by what you are doing (nature of social activity being
engaged in), and expressing diversity of social process (social
division of labour)". Registers differ in semantics, and therefore in

4) Bernstein's work plays an integral part in MAKH's theory, and as we
will see, is still highly influential today (a 3-day congress was held
late last year in Sydney by the systemics folk focusing on greater
synergies of his work with SFL-based work). Unfortunately his work was
misinterpreted by many in North America and remains largely unknown,
although hopefully the forthcoming discussion will do a little to
rectify that. See also Bernstein's penultimate work on the readings
page, which takes the following much further, particularly in terms of
knowledge structures.
Quoting MAKH, "Code is the principle of semiotic organisation governing
the choice of meanings by a speaker and their interpretation by a
hearer. The code controls the semantic styles of the culture". Codes
are "above the linguistic system" and apart from dialects and
registers. Codes are "symbolic orders of meaning generated by the
social system...actualised in language through the register...when the
semantic systems of the language are activated by the situational
determinants of text - the field, tenor and mode - this process is
regulated by the codes". Codes control the transmission of the
underlying patterns of a culture (or sub-culture). They are actualised
through socialising units, such as the family, school, etc. As the
child comes to interpret the meanings in the contexts of culture and
situation, at the same s/he "takes over the code". The code acts as a
filter, making making the semiotic principles of the sub-culture
accessible. "The child's linguistic experience reveals the culture to
him through the code, and so transmits the code as part of the

Before considering the last general concept of the theory, a note about
the linguistic system - a model of language consisting of a semantic,
a lexicogrammatical and a phonological plane. The semantic system
consists of three functional components, which can be mapped on to the
semiotic structure of the context of situation. These three components,
as mentioned in the paper we have been reading this week, are termed
"metafunctions" by MAKH - functional abstractions of the semantic
system. A text is a product of all three metafunctions - i) the
ideational metafunction that "represents the speaker's meaning
potential as an observer...the content function...language about
something...the component through which the language encodes the
cultural experience. ii) the interpersonal metafunction is the
participatory function of the language - "language as doing something".
The role relationships are expressed here, as are attitudes,
judgements, etc. iii) the textual metafunction, novel to the field of
sociolinguistics, breathes life into the other two meatfunctions and
makes the language operational in a context of situation - "it
expresses the relation of the language to its environment" including
the verbal and the non-verbal. As mentioned above, we can map the
ideational metafunction on to the field, the interpersonal metafunction
on to the tenor, and the textual metafunction on to the mode.

5) Social structure - Briefly, MAKH mentions three ways that social
structure is implicated in his theory. i) - "it defines and gives
significance to the various types of social context in which meanings
are exchanged...it is the social structure that generates the semiotic
tensions and the rhetorical styles and genres that express them". The
tenor variables of role relationships and status of the interactants
are involved in the social structure, as are the types of social
activity (field) and the mode in terms of the rhetorical channel with
its associated strategies. ii) the social structure, through the
intermediary of language, determines the forms taken by the
socialisation of the child. iii) "the social structure enters in
through the effects of social hierarchy, in the form of caste or
class". "The social structure is not just an ornamental background to
linguistic interaction, as it has tended to become in sociolinguistic
discussions. It is an essential element in the evolution of semantic
systems and semantic processes".

Halliday M.A.K. (1978). Language as social semiotic: the social
interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold

Hope this helps our discussions in some way or other...


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