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Michael Halliday at 80: A Tribute

by Mark Lowe

1. Happy Birthday

Michael Halliday, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, is one of the great linguists of our time. Like his equally illustrious fellow-linguist, Chomsky, he has now turned 80. Everyone concerned with language will wish to celebrate.

Continuum Publishers are celebrating by bringing out a new 10-volume edition of Halliday’s writings – an initiative greatly to be welcomed. They have reissued two key titles that had long been out of print: Learning How to Mean (a classic study of child language development) and Language as Social Semiotic (a classic study of language in society). They are also republishing many important articles and conference papers that had been languishing unread in difficult-to-find specialist journals.

Anyone wanting to know more about Halliday’s ideas will find what they want in the third volume of the new series: On Language and Linguistics. The book contains three articles on his basic functional-systemic theory of language, together with an account of the theory’s development. There is a section on his child language development research, there are references to his British and Australian curriculum development projects and there are two fascinating papers on the language of science. In addition, there are comparisons of Halliday’s and Chomsky’s theories of language dotted round the text. This book is a very useful compendium of Halliday’s most important ideas and achievements.

Here is a quote from a review by Professor Sydney Lamb, Professor of Linguistics at Rice University, Texas:

‘This marvellous volume, with its kaleidoscopic approach to linguisic research, constantly turning language round and round, as Halliday puts it, presents an extraordinarily imaginative picture of language and its relationship to science, society and consciousness…’

2. Quotations

Here are some quotes from the functional-systemic articles: they show the core ideas in the theory that inspires much of Halliday’s work:
– Language development is the mastery of linguistic function. Learning one’s mother tongue is learning the uses of language – the meaning potential associated with words. It is not the acquisition of linguistic structures….

– The three basic functions of language are:

  1. Instrumental (I want),
  2. Interactive (relations with other people),
  3. Experiential (describing the world).

– Subject-predicate propositions can be functionally analysed into:

  1. actor – process – goal,
  2. theme – rheme,
  3. given – new.

Readers wishing to know more about the theory are referred to Halliday’s magnum opus: An Introduction to Functional Grammar.

3. Child Language Development

In The Functional Basis of Lauguage, Halliday uses functional labels to record the language spoken by his 19-month-old son, Nigel. At this tender age, Nigel could handle one- and two-word utterances such as the following:
Regulatory (I want):
food – bread, meat, cake
toiletries – tooth paste
amenities – light, water, Bartok (=music)
performances – Oranges and Lemons, Little Bo-Peep
repetition = again

Interactional (personal interaction with the people round him)
Mummy come
Where Daddy?
(NB. What does Nigel’s use of the word Bartok to mean ‘music’ tell us about the Halliday family? O Brave New World that has such a family in it.)

In his discussion of this language, Halliday shows how his functional theory of language works in practice. A young child first uses language to achieve things: to get what he or she wants. At this stage, a child uses language without a grammatical system: formal grammar evolves later to enable the growing child to fulfil more complex needs such as describing experience. The order of grammatical mastery follows need, interest and maturity, not an alleged ‘natural order’. In other words, form follows function. Halliday also suggests that child language development follows the same evolutionary path as the growth of language in our species. We come back to this idea later, in the section on language and science.

4. Origins

Systemic Background sketches the origins of Halliday’s functional-systemic theory. The article shows, among many other things, what a broad river the theory is – how many tributaries feed into it and how many flow from it. It also offers a bird’s-eye view of key stages in Halliday’s professional life and the development of his ideas.

Halliday tells us that the greatest influence on his thinking was his London University teacher, J.R Firth, a Yorkshireman like Halliday himself (they were both born and brought up in the small Yorkshire town of Wharfedale). It was Firth who contributed the concept of system to Halliday’s theory of language.

Both Firth and Halliday acknowledged their debt to Hjemslev, Troubetskoy and the Prague School of linguistics for their functional approach to language. They also acknowledge their debt to two philosophers – Whitehead and Wittgenstein. The functional analysis of language in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations makes him a predictable influence, whereas Whitehead is unexpected. Halliday enjoyed the exuberant ideas expressed in Whitehead’s popular books, such as Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, but he was also impressed by the analysis of reality as process in Whitehead’s magisterial but sadly neglected Process and Reality. This analysis reappears in Halliday’s later work on language and science, as we shall see.

Malinowski’s anthropology was another seminal influence on both Firth and Halliday. Malinowski was a pioneer of the idea that language is a product of culture and that different cultures operate different kinds of languages and picture reality in different ways – ideas that are central to Halliday’s view of language and society.

Among contemporaries, W. S. Allen (author of the best-selling Living English Structure) showed new ways of describing grammar and comparing systems across languages. Basil Bernstein showed what it is that is achieved through language – the transmission, maintenance and modification of patterns of culture. He also gave Halliday the concepts of restricted and elaborated codes and the socio-linguistic insights that follow from them. From Bernstein, Halliday also learned, as he put it, ‘that linguistics cannot be other than an ideologically committed form of social action’, a belief that has influenced much of Halliday’s work.

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Whorf was another seminal influence. Halliday writes: ‘Whorf’s conception of how grammar models reality in the mind… will eventually turn out to be among the major contributions of 20th century linguistics’.

Halliday also acknowledges his debt to Chinese language studies, quoting Walter Smith (Professor of Chinese at London University), together with Luo Chang Pei and Wang Li, with whom he worked while studying Chinese in China. They gave him key insights into the semantic basis of grammar – another basic idea in Halliday’s theory of language, and key insights into Chinese – a very different language from the standard Latin / Greek / Indo-European language family that forms the linguistic background of most British, European and American linguists.

5. Applications

The practical applications of Halliday’s functional-systemic theory of language are many and varied. He directed two important curriculum development projects in Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. Both the primary project (Breakthrough to Literacy) and the secondary project (Language in Use) played a major part in modernising and improving the teaching of English in British schools.

Halliday has also had a significant role in the development of modern TEFL. His functional-systemic theory inspired much of the Council of Europe’s research on foreign language teaching – research which led to the Wilkins paper, the functional/notional syllabus and the Common European Framework. The communicative approach which dominates our field today stems from Halliday’s ideas on how people master languages. He influenced Sinclair and Coulthard’s study of classroom language. Henry Widdowson’s work on communicative methodology owes much to Halliday. Halliday’s work on the relationship of intonation and grammar has influenced the teaching of phonology, and his work on cohesion and coherence has deeply influenced the discourse analysis movement. Many M.A. programmes teach his functional-systemic theory, for example the programme directed by Thomas and Meriel Bloor at Warwick University. The Bloor’s book, The Functional Analysis of English, is one example among many of the volumes about Halliday’s theories that have been published. In short, Halliday’s influence on modern TEFL has been incalculable.

In addition to his work on teaching English as a Foreign Language, Halliday has been involved in many other language research projects. For instance, the Nuffield Foreign Languages Teaching Materials project, the OSTI Programme on the Linguistic Properties of Scientific English, Winograd’s Artificial Intelligence research project – and William Mann’s PENMAN project at the Information Science Institute at the Universitry of Southern California. He also helped to set up Australian language teaching curriculum development projects after moving to Australia in the 1970s.

It is clear from this awe-inspiring list of influences and projects that Halliday’s work on language does not inhabit an ivory tower. He wants his linguistics to be useful, to help children master language effectively, to make a difference in the real world. He thrives on inter-disciplinary challenges and real-world language problems. Halliday’s work is always socially committed.

6. Language and Science

Two of the most original and interesting papers in this collection deal with language and science: Language and the Order of Nature and On Language and the Evolution of Human Consciousness.

In the first of these, Halliday addresses the problem of how language can be made to describe faithfully the concepts of modern physics, and especially quantum physics. Newtonian scientific language pictures the world as a collection of ‘things’: we speak of velocity and weight, of gravity and light and matter and mind, rather than moving, feeling light or heavy – or thinking. However, ‘thing’ language distorts much of the reality of modern science. For instance, it distorts the quantum reality of ‘undivided wholeness and flowing movement’ – the picture of reality as a set of processes rather than a set of things that is found in the work of Niels Bohr and Heisenberg. Halliday circumvents this problem by avoiding noun-clause ‘thing’ language and reverting to an earlier form of language based on action and verbs to express scientific ideas. He refers to noun-clause academic ‘thing’ language as Attic, and verb-clause ‘action’ everyday language as Doric. An example will show the difference:

Attic: He also credits his former big size with much of his career success.
Doric: He also believes that he succeeded in his career mainly because he used to be big.

Halliday advocates using Doric language to convey modern scientific concepts. This kind of ordinary, verb-based language has evolved over many thousands of years as a uniquely flexible and faithful means of describing reality, and it is more suited than Attic language to describing the flux and process of quantum physics and relativity theory. Halliday’s debt to two philosophers becomes clear here. In Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead put forward a similar idea about the language of science years ahead of his time. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is permeated with the notion that ordinary language is the best vehicle for conveying a true picture of reality. As ever, Halliday uses ideas gleaned from many disciplines in his linguistic theories.

On Language in Relation to the Evolution of Human Consciousness shows how language both influenced the development of human consciousness and was in turn influenced by it. The paper quotes extensively from the neurobiologist Gerald Edelman’s Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind – demonstrating how the findings of modern neuroscience are consistent with his functional-systemic linguistic theory. Here are some quotes, to give a flavour of the ideas in this fascinating paper:

In this article, Halliday draws on ideas from many disciplines, including neurobiology, genetics, embryology, psychology and philosophy. It is a classic example of his inter-disciplinary approach to language. Integrating all these ideas into a global vision of mind, consciousness and language, Halliday answers ultimate questions: how did language evolve? What is the relation between mind and language? What is the relation between language and consciousness? This article shows Halliday at his most visionary.

7. Halliday and Chomsky

Halliday is always courteous and circumspect when referring to Chomsky: he only hints at their differences. Nevertheless, it becomes clear from the hints that their theories of language differ radically. Chomsky believes that language is innate: Halliday believes that it is learned. Chomsky believes that all human beings possess a grammatical programme hardwired into the brain: Halliday does not – he believes that grammar mirrors function and is mastered through experience. Chomsky believes in ‘Universal Grammar’: Halliday does not. Chomsky believes that language exists separately from experience: Halliday believes that language only develops through experience of other people and the world around us. Chomsky’s theory is Cartesian – in other words: mind exists separately from matter: Halliday’s ideas are Darwinian – in other words: language and the mind obey the same laws as all other aspects of reality. Chomsky’s theories are metaphysical: Halliday’s are scientific.

8. Conclusion

All this adds up to a lifetime of amazing achievement: a fundamental theory that has influenced every aspect of language studies; pioneering work on child language development; major studies of language in society and the language of science: important curriculum development projects; influential work on the relation between intonation and grammar – and on cohesion and coherence – and so on and so on.

Can there possibly be a downside?

Perhaps. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Halliday’s ideas are less widely know today than they were a generation ago. For instance, when I asked an experienced teacher training colleague the other day what he knew about Halliday, he mumbled: ‘ …important… difficult… can’t remember…’ I got similar responses from others that I asked. There are also those key titles that were allowed to remain out of print for far too long…… Things were different a generation ago: Halliday’s name was known then to almost everyone involved with language.

Does it matter that Halliday may not be as well known today as he was a generation ago? Does this mean that his ideas are no longer relevant to us, that they are no longer important? Does Halliday belong in the past? Is he an anachronism?

I don’t think so. On Language and Linguistics – and his many other titles – provide abundant evidence that Halliday’s ideas are as important and relevant today as they were a generation ago. His functional theory of language continues to inspire practical work on language, including the teaching of English as a Foreign Language. He has rare qualities that are as important now as they were 30 years ago: his refusal to plough a narrow linguistic furrow, his passion to understand how language affects and is affected by the world around us: the worlds of education, science, society, literature, and artificial intelligence – and his social commitment. Halliday stands out among the world’s linguists for the range, boldness and importance of his ideas – and for the way he applies his ideas to solve real-world problems. Halliday’s place is secure at the heart of the linguistic pantheon.

Many happy returns, Professor Halliday.

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