Functional Linguistics

This term is used to indicate linguistic approaches that are centrally concerned with the function of language – that is what language does, and how it does it in a given context. This approach contrasts with more formal approaches that are primarily concerned with formal structures, such as phonemes or sentence. Functional linguistics is focused on deriving grammatical, syntactic and textual structures from the ways in which language is used. Many functional linguists trace their work to either or both the British linguist, J. R. Firth and the early twentieth century Prague School of linguists. Multimodality is complex and draws on a range of origins, one of which is Systemic Functional Linguistics, notably the work of Michael Halliday that builds on the work of Firth. Systemic-Functional Linguistics is a theory of language centred on the notion of language function and which accounts for the syntactic structure of language.

In Language as Social Semiotic (1978) Michael Halliday proposes that the semiotic resources of language are shaped by how people use them to make meaning, emphasising the social functions they are put to. He holds that every sign serves three functions simultaneously: they express something about the world (‘ideational metafunction’), position people in relation to each other (‘interpersonal metafunction’) and form connections with other signs to produce coherent text (‘textual metafunction’). Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress took up the linguistic ideas of Halliday and theories of society derived from Marx to develop a critical account of language in Language as Ideology (Kress & Hodge, 1979). In Social Semiotics (1988) they adopted a similar stance to explore any set of semiotic resources that people use in everyday life, the resources of language as much as the resources of image, and of other modes.

In the late 1980’s, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen began to develop a social semiotic approach to the visual with a focus on print media, culminating in their book Reading Images (1996). In Reading Images they propose a framework for the analysis of image, which draws on the broad semiotic aspects of Halliday’s social semiotic theory and made use of the functional linguistic system networks as a heuristic framework for theorizing meaning as choice. At the same time, Michael O’Toole applied Halliday’s systemic functional grammar and the tools it offered to examine the visual in his book The Language of Displayed Art (1994). These works laid part of the foundation for Multimodality theory.

Editor: Andrew Burn
Reviewer: John Knox

See also: Language, Metafunctions, Multimodality, Social Semiotics, System Network
Key References

Halliday, M. A. K. (1985) An Introduction to Functional Grammar, London: Arnold

Kress, K and van Leeuwen, T (1996) Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design, London: Routledge