[xmca] Gordon Wells on Halliday

From: bb (xmca-whoever@comcast.net)
Date: Sat Jan 21 2006 - 13:59:12 PST

I pulled this out of the lchc archives, in a directory called "chapters" in a file called halliday, the day the archives were rediscovered. the date is unknown.

 -------------- Original message ----------------------


I've worked on a first draft of the "vignette" and see that I have
already written well over the six page limit on Halliday alone. I could,
at the point I have reached, go on to talk about those who have
developoed or applied Halliday's ideas or those whose ideas overlap to
a considerable extent. Jay Lemke would clearly fall into the first
category, along with many others; Gee, whose work I have not yet read,
would probably fall into the second category. Jay has mailed Gee's
latest (in press) publication, which I shall certainly read with
interest. But, to include him in the vignette would take several more
pages as well as hours of my time.

Please have a look at the following draft and advise.


                        HALLIDAY VIGNETTE

A central theme in sociocultural theory is that, whether conceived of as
taking place in communities of practice or activity systems, development
of both community and participating members occurs through tool-
mediated productive activity. Over the course of cultural history, tools are
created and developed to mediate the achievement of the goals of the
community's activities and, as a result, both the activities and their objects
are transformed by the incorporation of those tools. Similarly, on the
individual level, as new members enter the community, their participation
is transformed as they appropriate and master the community's tools and
practices; at the same time, through their creative use of them, individuals
also transform these resources and, hence, the activities in which they are
used and the communities that use them. Conceptualized in this way, the
developmental trajectories of both cultures and individuals are critically
dependent on the invention and use of tools of various kinds.

For Vygotsky (1981), the most important tools were signs, which he
conceived as the psychological tools that mediate mental activity:

By being included in the process of behavior, the psychological
tool alters the entire flow and structure of mental functions. It
does this by determining the structure of a new instrumental
act, just as a technical tool alters the process of a natural
adaptation by determining the form of labor operations. (1981,

Vygotsky identified a variety of sign-based tools but the one that he
undoubtedly considered to be of greatest significance was language.
Language not only functions as a mediator of social activity, by enabling
participants to plan, coordinate and evaluate their actions through external
speech; in addition, as the medium in which actions, objects and intentions
are symbolically represented, it also constitutes the tool that mediates the
associated mental activities in the internal discourse of inner speech
(Vygotsky, 1987).

Neither Vygotsky nor his immediate colleagues elaborated on this
characterization of language as "tool of tools" (Cole, ?) through detailed
investigation of its varied roles in mediating cultural activity. However,
this task has been very thoroughly taken up by Michael Halliday and by
those who have worked with him in the development and application of
systemic-functional grammar (Halliday, 1994). Although not directly
influenced by sociocultural theory, there is no doubt - as Wells (1994)
demonstrates - that Halliday's theory of language is highly compatible with
Vygotsky's ideas and can be seen as an important complement to them.

Halliday does not use the metaphor of tool; instead he refers to language as
a "social semiotic". However, it is clear that there is a strong equivalence
between the two concepts. In his introduction to one of his earlier
expositions of this perspective (Halliday, 1978), he describes the
relationship between language and culture as follows:

A social reality (or a 'culture') is itself an edifice of meanings -
a semiotic construct. In this perspective, language is one of the
semiotic systems that constitute a culture; one that is
distinctive in that it also serves as an encoding system for
many (though not all) of the others. ... By their everyday acts of
meaning, people act out the social structure, affirming their
own statuses and roles, and establishing and transmitting the
shared systems of values and of knowledge (1978, p.2).

As the label, "systemic-functional grammar", makes clear, Halliday's view
of language is inherently functional. This can be seen both in his account
of the internal organization of the language system itself and in his account
of its historical development. Much of his early work was devoted to the
elaboration of his theory of grammar (Halliday, 1967-8) for which his
article "Language structure and language function" (1970) provides a very
readable overview. To state the theory very simply, language provides a
means of relating meaning to expression through the operation of two
basic principles: choice and realisation. At the heart of language is a set of
semantic systems which are organized around three macrofunctions:
interpersonal (language as action), ideational (language as reflection), and
textual (language as discourse in situation). Any act of meaning-making
involves choices, at this semantic level, from each of these macrofunctions.
These meanings are then realised through the systems and structures at
the lexico-grammatical level which, in turn, are realised through the
sequential organization of the phonological or graphological structure of
the physical signal.

When we seek for the origin of these meanings, however, we must look to
the situations which provide the context for individual acts of meaning,
and these are essentially social. They are the activities and practices that
language mediates through its functions of coordinating interpersonal
action and of representing what is being enacted. However, like Bakhtin
(1986), Halliday recognizes that there are many different activity-based
varieties of language use, which he refers to as "registers" (Halliday &
Hasan, 1985). A register is "a particular configuration of meanings that is
associated with a particular situation ... Considered in terms of the notion
of meaning potential, the register is the range of meaning potential that is
activated by the properties of the situation" (1975, p.126). Within the
overall cultural semiotic, situations are categorized in terms of the three
broad categories of Field (the social action involved), Tenor (the roles and
status of the participants and the relationship between them), and Mode
(the role assigned to language in the event), which map onto the three
semantic macrofunctions referred to above. In this way, the relevant
features of the situation predict the semantic configurations that are likely
to occur in the texts that are constructed; or, from the point of view of the
participants, their interpretation of the semiotic structure of the situation
predisposes them to make certain types of choice from their meaning
potential in co-constructing their text.

>From one perspective, therefore, the co-construction of such texts can be
thought of as the means whereby participants, through linguistic
interaction, enact and reproduce the practices of the culture, and the
registers can be thought of as constituting a linguistic tool-kit from which
they select according to the nature of the practice in which they are
involved. However, it is important to emphasize that the relationship
between situation and language is neither unilateral nor deterministic:
although the situation activates the meanings that are expressed, it is
equally the case that the choice of meanings that the participants make
play a part in defining the situation and in influencing how it will develop.

Thus, for Halliday, linguistic interaction is preeminently social: both a form
of collaborative activity in itself and a means for mediating other activities.
And it is in response to the demands of social activity, he believes, that
both the functions that language serves and the formal means through
which these functions are realised have developed as they have. Not
surprisingly, therefore, Halliday has been interested to explore the
developmental implications of this thesis in greater detail. First, let us
consider cultural-historical development.

In "Language in a Changing World" (Halliday, 1993a), he develops the
thesis in the context of a discussion of the relationship between language
and reality . Following Sapir and Whorf, he argues:

... language does not passively reflect reality; language actively
creates reality. ... The categories and concepts of our material
existence are not 'given' to us prior to their expression in
language. Rather, they are construed by language, at the
intersection of the material with the symbolic. ... But, by the
same token, since language evolves out of the impact between
the material and the conscious modes of being, it follows that
as material conditions change the forms given by language to
consciousness also change. Grammar construes reality
according to the prevailing means and relations of production.
(pp. 7-8)
On this basis, Halliday then goes on to propose four stages in the
development of a language like English, corresponding to the "major
upheavals in human history", which, starting with hunting and gathering,
he identifies as settlement, iron age, and industrial revolution - with a
strong probability that a further developmental stage will occur as we
move into the "age of information".

Space does not allow the nature of the corresponding changes in ways of
meaning to be spelled out in any detail here, but the overriding
development has been one of progressive abstraction and "objectification",
realised in the grammar through the construing of processes as things,
based on the model of written language in which discourse itself becomes a
thing that can be handled and reproduced. However, although experience
has been reconstrued grammatically, in these four stages, in progressively
more abstract and objectified terms, the models of reality represented by
earlier stages of the grammar have not been obliterated, but coexist in
competing and complementary fashions in the total meaning potential of
the contemporary language.

Clearly, it would be difficult - if not impossible - to gather evidence to test
this hypothesis over the full trajectory of human language. However,
Halliday has provided substantiating evidence for the last stage, in his
studies of the development of scientific-technical English (Halliday, 1988,
1990; Halliday & Martin, 1993). In these papers, he shows how, from the
writings of Chaucer in the late fourteenth century, these registers have
evolved over the intervening centuries , both molded by the need to
communicate about observations and experiments in the physical sciences
and mediating the development of the new form of specialized knowledge
that both directed and resulted from these activities.

Among the syndrome of features that characterize this family of registers,
probably the most important is the use of what Halliday calls "grammatical
metaphor", that is to say, the linguistic realization of processes and
attributes as nouns or noun phrases. When nominalized in this way,
processes can be treated as things, which can be be both further modified
and counted; they can also be related to further nominalized processes
within a single clause, with the verbal element expressing the logical or
epistemic relationship between them. One of the examples that Halliday
quotes as typical of contemporary scientific English is the following:

The rate of crack growth depends not only on the chemical
environment but also on the magnitude of the applied stress.
(Halliday, 1988, p. 163; quoted from Scientific American,
December 1987: 81)

What has disappeared from this form of language use is the presence of
the experimenter, and the actions of doing, observing, conjecturing and
drawing conclusions. In place of this dynamic, "everyday" mode of
construing experience we have, instead, a synoptic mode of construal, in
which experience is reconstructed as a world of things rather than
happenings, and represented in clauses that foreground information and
the construction of sequences of logically linked propositions.

Interesting as this account of "semohistory" is in its own right, what is
really significant about it is the way in which it gives substance to
Vygotsky's rather general claims about the cultural-historical as well as
the ontogenetic development of the higher mental functions through the
social construction and individual appropriation of semiotic tools. As
Wartofsky (1979) argues:

... our own perceptual and cognitive understanding of the world
is in large part shaped and changed by the representational
artifacts we ourselves create. We are, in effect, the products of
our own activity, in this way; we transform our own perceptual
and cognitive modes, our ways of seeing and of understanding,
by means of the representations we make. (p. xxiii)

Halliday traces the development of one such representational artifact (tool)
and shows how, because language is both a part of reality and a metaphor
for reality, "it participates itself in the shaping of historical processes,
including those which constitute the means and relations of production"
(1993a, p.8).

Like Vygotsky, Halliday is also interested in ontogenetic development,
although he approaches it from a social rather than a psychological
perspective. Learning a first language - learning how to mean (Halliday,
1975) - is essentially the process of appropriating the culture's principal
means of social interaction and understanding:

In the development of the child as a social being, language has
the central role. Language is the main channel through which
the patterns of living are transmitted to him, through which he
learns to act as a member of 'society' - in and through the
various social groups, the family, the neighbourhood, and so on
- and to adopt its 'culture', its modes of thought and action, its
beliefs and its values. (1978, p. 9)

However, language is not monolithic, nor does it encode one consistent
theory of experience. Learning a language therefore means learning
particular varieties of the language and when and how to use them. Some
of this variation has already been considered in the discussion of registers
above. As we saw there, different selections from the overall meaning
potential of the language are associated with different situations and, in
some cases, these selectional differences may be such as to demand a
concomitant switch in the way of construing experience. Making sense
through language about the conditions under which glass might crack is
clearly very different if your football hits the neighbor's window, if you
are fitting storm windows in your home in Northern Ontario, or discussing
the topic with the writer of the article from Scientific American, quoted

Thus, language does not just provide a set of communication tools. Its
transforming effect on the individual learner is much more profound.
"Language has the power to shape our consciousness; and it does so for
each human child, by providing the theory that he or she uses to interpret
and manipulate their environment" (Halliday, 1993a, p.8). It is for this
reason that Halliday proposes that we make the study of language-learning
as the basis for a more general "language-based theory of learning":

When children learn language, they are not simply engaging in
one type of learning among many; rather, they are learning the
foundations of learning itself. The distinctive characteristic of
human learning is that it is a process of making meaning - a
semiotic process; and the prototypical form of human semiotic
is language. Hence the ontogenesis of language is at the same
time the ontogenesis of learning. (1993b, p. 93)

In the remainder of this article, Halliday provides an overview of a
language-based theory of learning that, in broad outline, is quite close to a
recapitulation of the historical trajectory sketched above. Proposing a
four-stage progression:

        (protolanguage -->) generalization --> abstractness --> metaphor

he comments:

As grammatical generalization is the key for entering into
language, and to systematic common-sense knowledge, and
grammatical abstractness is the key for entering into literacy,
and to primary educational knowledge, so grammatical
metaphor is the key for entering into the next level, that of
secondary education, and of knowledge that is discipline-based
and technical. (1993b, p.111)

As with the cultural-historical trajectory, Halliday has himself carried out
detailed research on one part of this sequence in his study of one child's
early language development (Haliday, 1975). Others have since extended
his theoretical work on the learning of the synoptic genres of discipline-
based school knowledge (Lemke, 1990; Martin, 1992; Wells, in press a, b)
and, in the work of the "genre" school in Australia, there has been a very
substantial application of these ideas in the preparation of materials and
teachers' guides for both elementary and secondary schools (Christie et al.,
1991-2; Derewianka, Rothery etc.). As Halliday comments on this
application of his social semiotic theory:

It assumes a constructivist interpretation, whereby language
actively construes human experience, from the 'commonsense'
constructions of the everyday mother tongue to the highly
elaborate edifices of the disciplines as they are taught and
researched in schools and universities. In this perspective, the
grammar of every natural language is (among other things) a
theory of human experience; it is through our acts of meaning
that we transform experience into the coherent - though far
from consistent - patchwork that we learn to project as
'reality'. (1993a, p. 46)

If variation according to situation is built into the tool-kit that language
makes available to every new member of a culture, there is another form
of variation that is associated with different (class-based) sub-groups
within a culture. This is the sociolinguistic variation that Bernstein (1971)
drew attention to under the rubric of 'codes', elaborated and restricted.
What interested Halliday in Bernstein's work was the latter's attempt to
explain the relationship between social class and differential educational
attainment, not in terms of genetic inheritance, but in terms of the cultural
transmission of educational inequality "through linguistic codes, or fashions
of speaking, which arise as a consequence of the social structure and the
types of social relationship associated with it" (Halliday, 1978, p.25). At
that time, the empirical evidence to support Bernstein's hypothesis was
sparse and somewhat inconclusive; furthermore the linguistic indices he
selected to test it were theoretically unsatisfactory. However, when
semantic variation (i.e. differential choices within the three macrofunctions
referred to above) was made the basis of comparison between social class
groups, first in the work of Turner (197 ) and then much more thoroughly
in the longitudinal study of mother-child interaction by Hasan (1986,
1992; Hasan & Cloran, 1990), clear differences were found in the patterns
of meaning that were adopted by the mothers in the two groups, and also
in the children's own contributions to the dialogues. Bernstein's hypothesis
of class-based differences in coding orientation finally received empirical

Interpreting this whole line of work from his own theoretical point of
view, Halliday comments as follows:

What we need to recognize is that, while the system of
language construes the ideology of society as a whole, the
development of resources within the system differentiates
among different groups within a society. There is
nominalization in both codes; but that in the elaborated code is
both more abstract and more general, and abstraction times
generalization equals power. There is grammatical metaphor in
both; but that in the elaborated code tends to be ideational,
that in the restricted code interpersonal - and ideational
metaphor equals power. The elaborated code is not merely the
code in which the genres of power are written; it is the code in
which material and social reality are construed from the
standpoint of those who dispose of it. (1993a, p. 14)

In sum, running through Halliday's work on all these dimensions of
linguistic variation two dominant themes can be discerned. First, because
language is both part of reality and a 'metaphor' for reality, the grammar
of a language functions as a cultural theory (or set of alternative theories)
of experience. Therefore, in learning the grammar of a language, one's
consciousness is shaped to construe experience according to the theory(s)
that it encodes. For all members of the language-using community this
both enables meaning making and constrains what can be meant.
However, in so far as different groups - gender, race and class - participate
in activities which emphasize different configurations of the total meaning
potential, and hence provide access to different ways of construing
experience, language also functions to perpetuate social inequalities,
empowering those whose interactional experience gives them access to the
'genres of power' and disempowering those whose interactional experience
enacts and thus perpetuates their own oppression.

The second theme is that, although language, as tool, transforms the
consciousness of those who use it, the tool itself can be transformed by
those who put it to new uses or choose to use it differently. As Halliday
emphasizes, "The system itself is constantly open to change, as each
instance slightly perturbs the probabilities; where such perturbations
resonate with changing material and social conditions the system is (more
or less gradualy) reshaped" (1993a, p. 33). And with changes in the tool,
go changes in the prevailing theory of reality and in the activity systems in
which such theories are used to mediate both material action and social

Halliday's social semiotic theory, like Vygotsky's more psychologically
oriented theory of intellectual development, is thus (among other things)
both an attempt to explain the role of language in cultural as well as
individual development and also a tool for those who seek to intervene,
on either plane, to change the developmental trajectory. In this latter
respect, it has been particularly fruitful. In addition to the work of
his close colleagues in Australia, whose work on the genres of
educational knowledge were referred to above, there has been a variety of
extensions of his ideas.......

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