English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in: FUNCTIONAL APPROACHES TO WRITING: RESEARCH PERSPECTIVES, Ed. B. Couture (London: Frances Pinter, 1986), pp. 1-10. Copyright © 1986 Barbara Couture.


This book is about written language functions and about written language research. The essays here are united in their investigation of language as social action-an approach to textual study that crosses traditional boundaries of discipline and method to uncover what written language is, how it works, how it affects readers, and what it demands of authors.

The functional approaches to written text presented here are most closely related to the work of scholars from the so-called London School of Linguistics as reinterpreted in the systemic linguistics of Michael Halliday and his followers. The London School challenged investigations of language in isolation, claiming that our understanding of meaning in text is dependent on the 'context of situation,' a concept promulgated by Malinowski ([I9231 1949) and meaning the immediate textual and extra-textual context in which an utterance is performed. This concept was later expanded by both Malinowski (1935) and Firth ([I9351 1957) to refer to the entire cultural environment encompassing a communication event.

Both Firth and Malinowski believed that meaning in language arises primarily out of speakers' and listeners' recognition of conventional social situations which are associated with linguistic choice. Halliday agrees with this central premise but also asserts that language itself is as central to meaning as the social activity it reflects. It allows us to achieve a wide variety of meaning potential within a given context: 'Language not only serves to facilitate and support other modes of social action that constitute its environment, but also actively creates an environment of its own, so making possible all the imaginative modes of meaning, from backyard gossip to narrative fiction and epic poetry.' In short, while language is configured-in part by the social action it supports, it can also create a social context within which it means: 'As we learn how to mean, we learn to predict each [language and context] from the other' (Halliday 1978: 3). Halliday conflates textual and contextual meaning, defining language as SOCIAL SEMIOTIC.

This view of language as social semiotic has dramatic consequences for scholarly investigation of written discourse. If we accept it, then we must break down barriers within traditional investigatory fields that limit our examination of language.