In Memoriam: M.A.K. Halliday

mak-hallidayOne of the great linguists of the modern era, Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday—best known as M.A.K. Halliday and as the originator of Systemic Functional Linguistics—passed away from natural causes at the age of 93 (April 13, 1925—April 15, 2018). Halliday received his BA in Chinese language and literature from the University of London, did some postgraduate work at Peking University just after the Second World War, then turned to linguistics and earned his PhD from Cambridge University in Chinese linguistics. His last academic position was Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University (in Sydney as well). Throughout his lengthy and influential career, he taught and researched at a number of different institutions, including Cambridge, Edinburgh, University College London, Indiana University, Stanford, University of Illinois, and Essex.

Strongly influenced by British linguist and his former teacher, J.R. Firth (the first to hold a chair in general linguistics in the UK), Halliday viewed language as a social phenomenon and was interested in describing language as a social semiotic—not so much in terms of language as a system of signs but language as having meaning making potential in social contexts. In his early work, his scale and category grammar, Halliday proposed that language can be described in terms of four grammatical categories (unit, structure, class, and system) and three scales (rank, exponence, and delicacy).

Halliday eventually developed this framework into what is called SFL, in which language is described systemically and functionally—systemic refers to the set of choices that a language user has in order to make meaning and involves a mapping out of that system, and functional refers to the functions of language in a social setting. Halliday identified two major functions of language, or metafunctions (a term he coined), ideational (or experiential) and interpersonal, along with a third metafunction that actualizes them, textual.

SFL has been utilized in various forms around the world and has been developed in several major ways by others (and some minor but important ways as well). Several of the best-known developments are the Cardiff school, focused upon the work of Robin Fawcett and his followers in Cardiff, Wales, and the Sydney school, focused upon the work of James Martin and his followers at the University of Sydney. Both are heavily dependent upon Halliday even if they—along with others—have also gone their separate ways on a number of major issues.

Halliday was known for generously welcoming and even encouraging others to take his seminal and provocative ideas and develop them in various ways and for various purposes. Halliday’s major work, Introduction to Functional Grammar (first edition 1985, fourth edition 2014), is probably his best known exposition of his theories, but several of his earlier works, such as Language as Social Semiotic and Explorations in the Functions of Language, along with some major works with his wife, Ruqaiya Hasan, such as Cohesion in English and Language, Context, and Text, are full of stimulating and suggestive ideas for others to develop further.

While Halliday never analyzed biblical texts (his main languages of interest were Chinese and English), I (Stan), along with my doctoral supervisor in linguistics (Nigel Gotteri), was the first to introduce SFL to the study of Koine Greek, to my knowledge. My work in verbal aspect is a development of SFL theory in terms of Formal Systemic Functional Grammar, specifically utilizing a system network of the Greek verb. I have also used SFL as a type of discourse analysis for the New Testament. I (Dave), among a number of Stan’s students and colleagues, have utilized SFL for my discourse analysis of Galatians (a dissertation that I hope to successfully defend soon and subsequently publish). Our co-blogger, Hughson, has also utilized Hallidayan principles for his doctoral dissertation (now published; see selected publications) on the languages of Jesus.

Thus, while Halliday did not have any personal direct influence on biblical studies, his linguistic theories resulted in not only an approach to the Greek language but discourse analysis and also sociolinguistics that has been, and is still being, applied to biblical studies. So along with the rest of the linguistic community, we write this tribute to Halliday in appreciation of the lifetime of creative and suggestive work he did. He probably never imagined that the Bible would be interpreted so widely and so significantly using his linguistic model.

— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon


2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: M.A.K. Halliday

  1. Pingback: The Passing of M.A.K. Halliday – Koine Greek

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