IH Journal of Education and Development

IH Journal Issues

open all | close all


open all | close all

IH Journal Issues:

Published in:

Michael Halliday: An appreciation by Alan Jones

Michael Halliday: An appreciation

By Alan Jones

Hallidayan linguistics today

With the publication of his Collected Works over the past several years by Continuum, Michael Halliday has entered the pantheon of modern linguistics. His name appears in all good overviews of linguistics, language philosophy and applied linguistics (see, for example, Linguistic Theory: The Discourse of Fundamental Works, 1991, by Robert de Beaugrande; Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language, 2005, edited by Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge). As Mark Lowe put it in these pages recently (IH Journal, Issue 24, Spring 2008), Halliday has had “a lifetime of amazing achievement”. He has developed a comprehensive and coherent theory of language, social interaction and indeed society that challenged most accepted ways of thinking about language up to his time. His functional meaning-based approach has allowed him to account for child language development, second language acquisition, language variation and change, language in the school curriculum, especially with regard to literacy development, language in science, and the key role of language in education more generally.

Halliday’s own seminal output has been significantly enhanced and extended by colleagues and converts throughout the world. Ruqaiya Hasan (his wife and long-time collaborator) has extended his work on cohesion and semantics, language in context, child language development and the ideological content of language. Some of his erstwhile students now hold important university posts as eminent linguists in their own right. There is Jim Martin (who holds a Personal Chair in Linguistics at the University of Sydney), Christian Matthiessen (Chair Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University), David Butt (Director of the Centre for Language in Social Life, also at Macquarie), Geoff Williams (University of British Columbia), and Erich Steiner (University of Saarland), to name just this few.

Hallidayan linguistics is actively promoted through the International Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (ISFLA), which has met annually since 1992, and whose congresses attract delegates from every continent. National congresses are also regularly organised by (e.g.) the Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (ASFLA), the European Systemic Functional Association (ESFLA), and the Latin American Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (LASFLA). The City University of Hong Kong has established the Halliday Centre for the Intelligent Application of Language Studies (under the direction of Professor Jonathan Webster, a long-time collaborator of Halliday’s). The Systemic Functional Linguistics Association of Nigeria (SYSFLAN) has been active since at least 2004.


Halliday’s view of language

Halliday’s “lexicogrammar” is a functional account of the “meaning potential” that speakers of English have at their disposal. For Halliday, a language is made up of more-or-less closed “systems” of words and grammatical structures, with our vocabulary constituting a relatively open system, and grammar a fixed number of relatively closed ones. From these systems speakers make selections in order to construct, simultaneously, “wordings” and “meanings”. The systems of wordings and meanings thus available to a language user reflect the social and cultural context of the language as well as the needs of the immediate situation. So the meanings that a speaker can encode, although they may be in some sense new, are heavily constrained by the recurrent nature of the situations of use.

For Halliday “meanings” are of three sorts, and every utterance encodes meaning on three levels simultaneously. The three types of meanings available to speakers are ideational, interpersonal and textual. These broad types of meaning are in fact called “metafunctions”. Speakers use their lexicon-cum-grammar over the course of a given utterance a) to represent experience, b) to achieve interpersonal goals, and c) to structure information as efficiently and effectively as possible from a communicative point of view. It can be seen from this that for Halliday “meaning” means “function” (more exactly, “function in context”). The kinds of meaning we communicate can be overt, as in the words we use and what we say, or covert, in that the structures we employ indirectly also convey more abstract kinds of meaning. In 1978, in a seminal publication called Language as Social Semiotic, Halliday tied many theoretical threads together to give language a central but ambivalent place in a powerful theory of human life in social contexts. Here he develops an explicit account of how “language and society meet in the grammar” (as Diane Kilpert, 2003, felicitously put it). According to this account, our language on the one hand shapes the way we perceive the world we live in and, in particular, our social world; but, at the same time, through its rich potential for creating new meanings, it allows us to act upon and shape that world.

Investigating language as a socially situated phenomenon, Halliday has revealed the invisible infrastructure of daily life, and of human relationships and identities. His functional linguistics, in detailing the nanomechanics of everyday talk and texts, has shown us how social actors both construct meaning and are embedded in constructed meaning. The meaning potential of language, made accessible in this way, is what gives us our ability to invent and innovate and (in theory at least) develop the civilizing parameters of our world.



 Halliday is widely regarded as a pioneer of eco-critical discourse analysis after an influential lecture entitled “New Ways of Meaning: the Challenge to Applied Linguistics” at the AILA conference in Saloniki in 1990 (AILA = Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée, otherwise the International Applied Linguistics Association). The lecture has been published in The Ecolinguistics Reader (edited by Alwin Fill and Peter Muhlhausler, 2001). The main example he gives in this paper is the widespread metaphor of economic growth; he goes on to describe how the English language has become pervaded with terms such as large, grow, tall, all of which are implicitly evaluated as positive and good – despite inevitably negative consequences for the ecology. This is one of the few public statements Halliday has made about the ideological content of discourse in social life (though it must be said that practitioners of Critical Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis often acknowledge their debt to Hallidayan linguistics as method).

In fact Halliday has always been a political radical, at least since an early sojourn in China and his involvement with the British Communist Party while at Cambridge (in the early 1950s). However, disappointed with Marxist linguistics (as it was called), he “deferred” political activism in order to work on his own theory of language – though this for Halliday was not so much a theory of language as a theory of language in social life and hence a theory of how society works. Halliday has never engaged directly, or at least publicly, in political debates and it can be argued that his social theory (and the articulation of this in terms of field, tenor and mode) fails to account, overtly at least, for disparate interests, motives, and conflict (Jim Martin’s work on hortatory exposition, and on genre and ideology, has filled this gap to some extent, but he is more interested these days in positive discourse analysis.)

Relevance for language teaching

The relevance of Halliday’s writings on language, learning and society for language teaching is sometimes underestimated by classroom teachers. Systemic-Functional Grammar (SFG) is felt by some to be too complex for classroom teaching purposes, particularly in institutions where a communicative approach to language teaching dominates the curriculum, or where fluency has priority over accuracy. Yet it was the challenge of teaching Chinese to native English speakers, which involved explaining the distinct meaning potential of the Chinese language to his English-speaking students, that led Halliday to ask the kinds of questions about language that ultimately led to his comprehensive meaning-based account of English grammar and discourse. And indeed Halliday and his theories have had tremendous influence on language teaching in the past, contributing to the development of the functional/notional syllabus and the Common European Framework. The communicative approach, which has been so popular and successful in its own way, owes a certain amount to Halliday’s ideas about language (advocates of CLT also like to cite Dell Hymes on communicative competence). In Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, graduate programmes in applied or pure linguistics are based on his functional-systemic linguistic theory.

As an English language teacher for many years, some of the concepts and analyses that I have found immediately relevant and effective in the classroom are the following:

  • Halliday’s work on intonation (Intonation in the Grammar of English was republished in 2004, with a CD-ROM); his analysis of English intonation in terms of a smallish set of meaningful pitch contours (and a part of the grammar of English) lends itself in a very practical way to the teaching of face-to-face communication skills;
  • This leads into a consideration of the Given-New principle – a principle for the organisation of information that is as relevant at the level of entire texts as it is at the level of the clause, where it is realised in speech through intonation;
  • Halliday’s 1976 book on Cohesion in English (co-authored with Ruqaya Hasan) is an invaluable aid to understanding and teaching aspects of grammatical cohesion like reference chaining and conjunction;
  • Halliday’s work on the thematic organisation of texts is a very useful tool for raising students’ awareness and control of coherence as well as cohesion in their writing;
  • The concept of grammatical metaphor (where for example processes are encoded by nominal groups) has opened up many new avenues for the effective teaching of formal, academic or scientific registers of English;
  • Finally, Halliday’s functional breakdowns of grammatical structures (units like nominal and verbal “groups”) can be graphically displayed on the whiteboard to the benefit of some intermediate to advanced level learners.

It is true that from the 1960s on Halliday focused more on the role of language in learning than in learning language. But his ideas on this topic have key implications for language teaching, which is often (and perhaps necessarily in its earliest stages) carried on as though content were the least important aspect of language use. Halliday would of course argue that the meanings expressed in language – i.e. “content” – are inseparable from the wordings used to encode them. The separation usually made between ‘content’ and ‘language’ in schools and universities is seen as a pedagogic necessity rather than an expression of the true state of affairs.  The growing popularity of Content Based Language Teaching (CBLT) and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) in schools with large numbers of second-language children and, more particularly, in specialised teaching areas like English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Specific Purposes (ESP), reflects an acknowledgement by educators (and not only language educators) that language is central to the kinds of learning where students must grapple with uncertain knowledge and theoretical formulations. There is now a considerable literature on content-based language teaching and the focus is often on the benefits to be gained from a close integration of core curriculum with language teaching aims. I would emphasise here, though, that the integration of content with language in the classroom calls for very specialised teaching skills and informed support by the institution if it is to be successfully carried out.

A personal note

 When Halliday arrived in Sydney University in 1976 (to take up the Foundational Chair in Linguistics) I switched from undergraduate studies majoring in Social Anthropology to a degree program in Linguistics. I attended his first (second year) classes in Functional Grammar and was a diligent consumer of the often semi-legible stencilled class notes from which gradually developed (we are told) what is probably Halliday’s most important publication, his Introduction to Functional Grammar (1985, 1994; this has not entirely been replaced by the 3rd edition, 2004, co-authored with Matthiessen). Halliday was soon joined by his Canadian PhD student, Jim Martin. Halliday then hired Barbara Horvath who taught us Transformational Grammar a la Chomsky and Labovian sociolinguistics. By the time Halliday arrived I had read “Language structure and language function” in the penguin paperback New Horizons in Linguistics, edited by John Lyons, and “Linguistic function and literary style: An enquiry into the language of William Golding’s The Inheritors” in Rules and Meanings: The Anthropology of Everyday Knowledge, edited by Mary Douglas (a Penguin Reader). This had whetted my appetite for a kind of linguistics that could actually explain the whys of linguistic expression, i.e. give explicit reasons for the different ways in which people spoke and wrote, but also offered insights into a writer’s achievement of certain literary effects.

Halliday’s kind of linguistics also appealed in that it promised to help me understand the ways in which speakers of other languages, and hence people in other cultures constructed their lifeworlds (it is worth remembering here that Halliday was much influenced by Sapir and Whorf). Halliday’s interest in Malinowski made a convenient bridge, for me, from social anthropology to social linguistics, and Malinowski’s famous claim that language was primarily “a mode of action and not an instrument of reflection” was exciting and new at that time (Malinowski, 1923, p. 312). And I was entranced, firstly, by the idea that language was so massively constitutive of knowledge, including mathematical and scientific knowledge and, secondly, by the idea that language both warranted and mediated social actions. Halliday maintains that language has evolved in the context of its use in “the social construction of reality” (a phrase made popular by Berger and Luckman, 1966) or, as Searle has it, “the construction of social reality” (Searle, 1995).


Halliday recognises the increasing importance of non-verbal modes of communication in modern life but he also remarks that there is always a lot of pressure to get away from language. It’s hard work focusing on language, so people want to do something else. So there is always a danger of people seeing other modalities as an easy option. (Halliday & Burns, 2006: 122)

He points out that language precedes the other modalities in the lifetime of the individual. It is the primary meaning-making modality or social semiotic. Halliday has also shown us that language has played, and continues to play, a key formative role in the evolution of human consciousness and society, and he has shown us in considerable detail how this transpires. This is perhaps his greatest contribution to modern thought and resonates with what has been called “the turn to language” (or “the turn to discourse”).  And it should guarantee linguistics a pivotal role in public debates about issues of a social, economic or political nature, though this clearly has not yet happened. Moreover, this position makes Hallidayan linguistics potentially a very radical theory. If our society has been largely “constructed” through language and discourse, then linguistics, and especially a socially grounded functional linguistics, provides the tools with which to critique it. In fact, Hallidayan linguistics is the favoured tool of those who practice Critical Linguistics (like Roger Fowler and Gunther Kress) and Critical Discourse Analysis (such as Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak and Theo van Leeuwen, to name just three). In this way, systemic-functional grammar generates not just insights into how we are shaped by our social and cultural context via language and discourse but also a critical awareness of these shaping forces. There is no doubt in my mind that the impact of Michael Halliday on modern linguistics and the way we think about language, society and human consciousness will be felt for many years to come.


Halliday, an Emeritus Professor at Sydney University, is now in his eighties, and is currently enjoying his retirement from teaching, though he still lectures widely. Readers might like to refer to:

Michael Halliday and Anne Burns (2006). Applied Linguistics: thematic pursuits or disciplinary moorings? A conversation between Michael Halliday and Anne Burns. Journal of Applied Linguistics 3(1): 113-128.

Author’s Bio:
Alan Jones is based at Macquarie University, Sydney, where he convenes and teaches on postgraduate programs in communication in professions and organisations. He has taught academic English (EAP), especially writing, for more than twenty years and now teaches a course for EAP teachers.

Similar Articles: