Functional Grammar

In the early twentieth century, researchers such as the linguist John Firth (1890-1960) and the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) paved the way for a new approach to language which sees language in terms of what it does rather than what it is. This approach is known as systemic functional linguistics, and the term functional grammar is used to describe how words function in a clause. The linguist most closely associated with functional grammar is Michael Halliday (born 1925).

Halliday’s work and that of his colleagues produced a system which analyses texts in terms of three metafunctions. The Experiential metafunction is concerned with meaning, that is, with the way language interprets experience. The Interpersonal metafunction is concerned with the personal relationships that a text establishes and reflects. The Textual metafunction is concerned with the way in which information is organised in a text. The three metafunctions show how texts vary according to register. The broadest distinction is between written and spoken registers, and  there are increasingly fine distinctions to be made within each register. The register variables which constitute the Experiential metafunction are referred to as Field, those which constitute the Interpersonal metafunction as Tenor, and those which constitute the Textual metafunction as Mode. Conversation, for example, may be characterised by elements of Mode, such as turn-taking and interruptions. A certain distance between speaker and audience, an element of Tenor, may, on the other hand, be found in a lecture or a sermon.

In analysing a clause, traditional grammar uses terms such as subject, object, verb and so on. These are useful in describing clause structure. Functional grammar adds to this by using descriptions which relate the grammar more closely to the world it describes. For example, traditional grammar analyses a sentence such as ‘Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo’ as

(1a) Wellington [Subject] defeated [Verb] Napoleon [Object] at Waterloo [Adverbial].

Functional grammar sees it as

(1b) Wellington [Participant] defeated [Process] Napoleon [Participant] at Waterloo [Circumstance].

Participant and Process are generic terms which can be made more specific according to their nature. In (1), defeated is a Material Process, in that it describes something which happens in the world. The Participants in Material Processes are Actors that initiate a process, and Goals that complement it.

There are three other main kinds of Process.

A Mental Process describes what goes on in the mind rather than the external world. In a clause such as

(2) Wellington hated Napoleon

the grammatical relationship between Wellington and Napoleon seems to be different from that in (1). In (2), nothing directly happens to Napoleon if Wellington hates him, but in (1) something very clearly does happen to him if he defeats him. Traditional grammar analyses the two clauses in the same way – Subject, Verb, Object – but that seems inadequate, given the different type of relationship between the protagonists. Functional grammar overcomes this difficulty by treating them differently. In a Mental Process such as this, the first Participant is said to be the Senser and the second the Phenomenon.

A clause such as

(3) Wellington was a great general

is centred on a Relational Process in functional grammar terms. Traditional grammar analyses it not as Subject-Verb-Object, but as Subject-Verb-Complement, because be is a type of verb called a copula, which equates the two parts of the clause. (The Complement in such cases is also known as the Subject Predicative.) This is helpful, but, again, functional grammar uses a different set of terms to indicate more precisely the various functions involved. Wellington is a particular kind of Participant known as the Value, and a great general as the Token.

A Verbal Process introduces a further set of terms. In a sentence such as

(4) Wellington explained the battle plan to his troops

Wellington is the Sayer, explained is the Verbal Process, the battle plan is the Verbiage and to his troops is the Receiver. Traditional grammar, by contrast, sees no difference between the battle plan, and Napoleon as in (1) or (2), and yet there is clearly a different relationship between these elements of the clause.

Functional grammar is not well known in the UK or North America and seems, indeed, to have its intellectual home in Australia, perhaps because Michal Halliday, British by birth, was Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. Those wishing to study and use it must get used to a new analytical apparatus, with many unfamiliar terms. Those terms often have fuzzy boundaries, and don’t always seem to fit the text under examination. Deciding what kind of Process is expressed in any particular clause can be a subjective matter. The same element seems sometimes to occur in more than one register variable. Nevertheless, any system which considers language as meeting a particular need, at a particular place at a particular time is to be valued. As Halliday has said, ‘The particular form taken by the grammatical system of language is closely related to the social and personal needs that language is required to serve.’

Anyone who is prompted by this to take the subject further might like to try Geoff Thompson’s. ‘Introducing Functional Grammar’.

One response to “Functional Grammar

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Active and Passive | Caxton

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