Language as social semiotic in Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics

Michael Halliday is an internationally recognised scholar who, from the late 1950s, has contributed significantly to theories of language and related areas. Best known for developing systemic functional linguistics (SFL), he transformed views about language by making choice a core concept of his theory, where choice in the language system is between meanings rather structures [1]. His most popular work, Introduction to Functional Grammar (1985/1994/2004), shifted the focus of linguistics out of the “syntactic age” [2] into what we might now call the semiotic age. He was the first linguist to view language as a resource for construing meaning (Learning How to Mean, 1974), coining the expression Language as social semiotic in the early 70s.

In SFL, every act of language is an act of meaning and “to mean is to act semiotically” [3]. For Halliday “the internal organization of language is not arbitrary but embodies a positive reflection of the functions that language has evolved to serve in the life of social man” [4]. This is unique because it means language must be explained as expressing meanings that are created within a social system [5].  For those of us who are interested in how language acts both socially and semiotically, this is useful because it lets us describe and explain how social reality is encoded in language, both in terms of how language is a means of reflecting on things and how it is a means of acting (symbolically) on people [6].

Within SFL, language can be viewed from two semantic perspectives:

  • Generically as semiotic system; representing the full meaning potential available to speakers (i.e. the full set of semantic options available to a speaker, what he or she can mean in contrast to what he or she can’t mean)
  • Specifically as text; representing a socially constructed instance of the system (this simply means that ‘text’ is the result of the meanings that were actually selected, it is the output of the semiotic system).






To illustrate this, consider a traffic light. In systemic notation, the semantic options (e.g. potential = ‘stop’ OR ‘caution’ OR ‘go’) are related to their forms  (red, yellow, green). So, if the meaning ‘stop’ is selected, the text will be expressed as (red) .









The same basic relations apply for language. However the language system is complex and there are many different related systems. Each one represents the set of semantic options that are available to the speaker (i.e. what the speaker can mean). For example, in the simplified system shown below for transitivity (categories of experience), three semantic options are available: material (‘doing’), mental (‘sensing’) or relational (‘relating’).  Examples of an instance of each option are shown below.







SFL describes three main functions of language, each organised by its own system network:

Experiential meaning: representation of experience. Speakers represent their experience by the content component of language mainly in terms of participating entities, processes and circumstances.

Interpersonal meaning: social interaction. Speakers use language to act, e.g. ask questions, give information, issue a command etc. Language also expresses the speaker’s subjective judgments and opinions.

Textual meaning: relevance in context. Speakers create text by indicating topic and relevance in how they organise language.

These metafunctions are simultaneously expressed in one form – the clause, which, as text, holds traces of these meanings. Analysts recover these by identifying the strands of meaning, metaphorically like using a prism to refract white light; by separating them, their semantic contributions to the text can be understood.







As an example, two clauses will be analysed briefly to show the dispersion of the strands of meaning. They were taken respectively from political party speeches by Blair (1995) and Clegg (2007).

“I wasn’t born into this party. I chose it. I’ve never joined another political party”

Tony Blair, Special Conference (Labour Party). April 29, 1995.



Form Clause I chose (the labour party)


Experiential meaning Actor (Agent) Material Process (active) Goal (Affected)
Interpersonal meaning Subject Finite Predicator Complement
Declarative Mood
Textual meaning Theme Rheme


“Like most people of my generation, I wasn’t born into a political party.

I am a liberal by choice, by temperament and by conviction”

Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Party. October 19th, 2007.


Form Clause I am a liberal by choice


Experiential meaning Carrier Relational Process Attribute Circumstance: Manner
Interpersonal meaning Subject Finite Predicator Complement Adjunct
Declarative Mood
Textual meaning Theme Rheme

These clauses are clearly very similar. However with closer examination, we can get a better understanding of the meanings that are expressed. Both speakers function as Subject and as Theme to create text and relevance, thereby grounding what is being said. However experientially they differ considerably. Blair is represented actively in a material process, having the role of Actor and the labour party is represented as Goal, something impacted upon by Blair.  In contrast, Clegg is represented abstractly as Carrier, an entity that is simply related to the party as an Attribute. For Clegg, then, party membership is an attribute. Furthermore, the act of choosing is for Blair an active process in which he is Actor, whereas for Clegg it is a peripheral element, expressing a Manner Circumstance. Circumstances such as this one “encode the background against which the process takes place” [7]. Choosing is therefore background for Clegg, whereas for Blair, it is a pivotal element.

This kind of approach is useful as a conceptual tool for exploring the semiotics within the language system, as construed within and by the social system. The analysis of text enables us to decode the semiotic properties of the situation in which the text exists.  Situation should be interpreted as a “semiotic structure whose elements are social meanings and into which ‘things’ enter as the bearers of social values” [8]. Given that language is the primary means by which we act and interact, SFL analysis can give attention to the semiotic acts of speakers by describing language from the perspective of social semiotic, where the focus is on “defining human experience and enacting the social relations essential to our shared sense of humanity” [9].


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For more information on Systemic Functional Linguistics:

Introductory books:

Fontaine, L. (2013, in press) Analyzing English Grammar: a systemic-functional introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1985/1994/2004) Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Thompson, G. (2004, 2nd edition) Introducing Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Books on Language Semiotics:

Halliday, M.A.K. (1976). Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as a Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Threadgold, T. Grosz, E.A., Kress, G. & Halliday, M.A.K. Eds. (1986) Semiotics, Ideology, Language. Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture.

Online resources:

ISFLA – International Systemic Functional Linguistics Association (lots of resources)

Sysfling – Sysfling is the main international discussion group for SFL.

Functional Grammar for Teachers – a really nice moodle, designed for teachers but offers a really great introduction to SFL.

References (separate page?)

[1] Fawcett, R. (2008) Invitation to Systemic Functional Linguistics through the Cardiff Grammar: an extension and simplification of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar.  London: Equinox.

[2] Berry, M., Butler,  C.S., Fawcett,  R.P., and Huang, G.W. (eds.) Meaning and Form: Systemic Functional Interpretations.  Meaning and Choice in Language: Studies for Michael Halliday.  Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

[3] Halliday, M. A. K. (2013) Meaning as Choice. In Fontaine, L., Bartlett, T. and O’Grady, G. (eds.) Systemic Functional Linguistics: Exploring Choice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

[5] Kress, G. (1976) Introduction. In G. Kress (ed.), Halliday: System and Function in Language. London: Oxford University Press, pp. vii-xxi.

[6] Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as a Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

[7] Thompson, G. (2004, 2nd edn.) Introducing Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

[8] Kress, G. (1976) Introduction. In G. Kress (ed.), Halliday: System and Function in Language. London: Oxford University Press, pp. vii-xxi.

[9] Webster, J. (2005)  Why the human sciences need the linguist. Linguistics and the Human

Sciences. 1, 1, pp. 3-13.


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