45th International Systemic Functional Congress at Boston College

My colleague, Christopher Land, and I presented a paper on “Modeling Negation in Ancient Greek” at the 45th International Systemic Functional Congress hosted by Boston College from 23-27 July 2018. The Boston College site was a beautiful and impressive venue for the congress of about four hundred participants, a much bigger audience than the thirty or so when I attended the conference at the University of Stirling in Scotland in 1984. Chris could not attend this meeting, so I made the presentation, I believe the only presentation on an ancient language, and the only one on ancient Greek—although I had a small but knowledgeable audience.

There were a number of papers and sessions by some of the well-known figures in SFL, such as James Martin and Tom Bartlett, among others. I was able to attend and respond to a wide variety of papers on such topics as conversation and discourse analysis, the various metafunctions, types of academic discourse, corpus linguistics and the metafunctions, grammatical metaphor in literary and other texts, some work on typologies, translation as re-instantiation, social representation, the use of qualitative data, theme and rheme in English and German, register variation, and a few papers on work done in other languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese. I attended an entire session devoted to the Reading to Learn program developed by Martin and David Rose, and heard progress reports on how genre-based curriculum has made a significant impact upon student literacy.

There were of course a number of highlights to the conference, including several social occasions where lively conversation occurred. The highlights for me—besides the opportunity to present our paper, which was well-received and aroused interest even in some who did not attend it—included hearing Jim Martin’s final paper on pedagogical discourse and register variation, meeting (again) Peter Fries and his wife Nan and having Peter take me through his entire paper since I had not been able to attend it (nothing like a personal presentation), meeting and talking several times with Michael Cummings of York University who has done some very important work on language and literature (thanks, Michael, for attending our paper and offering your insights), and meeting and getting to know Tom Bartlett from Cardiff soon to move to Glasgow, who is exploring some important topics in ways that challenge the status quo.

Concerning many of the papers, I was struck by how a good number of them, especially by current students or recent graduates, are content simply to work within a prescribed set of SFL strictures, and how unwilling many of them are to depart from this framework or to explore a greater diversity of data and configurations. For example, some of the data sets treated are relatively small and uncomplex, and the models applied to them are straightforward, without bringing the findings to bear on improving or modifying the models. Much of the work that is being done in SFL on ancient biblical Greek strikes me in comparison as being much more methodologically challenging and rigorous, as well as handling larger quantities of data, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

As far as overall trends are concerned, it is clear, at least to me, that Martin is the heir of Michael Halliday. In every paper that I attended where the basic framework of SFL was laid out, such a presentation followed the model of Martin, including such elements as his stratification of language (discourse semantics, register, genre, etc.) and/or invocation of appraisal theory as the SFL framework. This occurred to the point of virtually excluding any significant reference to the Cardiff school of SFL. Some enquiry revealed that the perception is that Cardiff has become marginalized and perhaps confined to only a few practitioners located in Wales. The reasons for this shift are probably related to the quantity of publications by Martin and his close associates, such as Rose, as well as the lack of major publications coming out of Cardiff and the importance of Martin and Rose’s genre-based educational work in the Reading to Learn program that has come to dominate some educational environments. This is a shame.

As insightful and important and exploratory as Martin’s work has been, I think that SFL was arguably more wide-open and adventuresome when the earlier form of Halliday’s work (pre-IFG [Halliday’s Introduction to Functional Grammar, now in its 4th edition with Christian Matthiesson]) was seen to constitute the “standard theory,” against which other forms of thought, including Sydney, Cardiff, and perhaps even Macquarie positioned themselves, without excluding any of them from consideration. In that regard, SFL work in Greek has been able to keep a much more open and critical methodological approach that has explored new and different ways of configuring the SFL architecture to address language problems in new and different ways. The rest of the SFL community has something to learn from this work in New Testament Greek studies (as could other areas, such as classical Greek studies). In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to see some people I had met before and to get to know a number of new ones, but I was convinced that the work being done in New Testament Greek within an SFL framework can hold its own with pretty much all of the work being done in modern-language SFL research.

— Stanley E. Porter


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