SFL: A Living Theory of the Living Language

By Ruslana Westerlund, a self-taught SFL Learner.

Language is for the living of lifeFor the past 3 years, I’ve been learning about Systemic Functional Linguistics.  I was drawn to this theory because it offered a refreshing description of language as a dynamic resource for making meaning as opposed to a set of rules prescribed by a committee.  I resonated with this theory because of how close the theory was to the actual language people used on a daily basis.  Also, being a bicultural citizen of this world, I have begun to observe how language changes in different cultural contexts and how the rules that I learned in my grammar studies over the course of 5 years, were constantly “broken” by the native speakers, who, supposedly, created them.  As will be defined further in my post,  the SFL’s idea of “tenor” (role relationships, awareness of audience, your own voice and identity you are construing with your language resources) became increasingly important to me in my professional email exchanges, before I knew it was called “tenor”, one of the three variables of SFL’s register.  I have discovered tenor through my use of the strong modality when I would overuse should, need to, have to and even a must – those are reserved for very rare communication exchanges that upset supervisors (who didn’t mind coming off as upset) were allowed to use.  The tenor also became clear to me when I learned that using the word please at the beginning of each command was not sufficient in the Midwestern, indirect culture where requests are construed as suggestions and not as direct commands (unless you are a parent who lost patience with their children).  From my most recent memory, I was presenting to a room of 175 teachers, and I wanted them to have different people at the table, representing diverse perspectives.  I wrote on the slide, “Before you sit down, please make sure you have the following people at your table: someone with language knowledge, someone in an administrative role, ect.”  My good friend corrected me and said, “We can’t be that pushy, Ru.  You can’t say Please make sure here, to these teachers.  You should say, “Try to have the following people at the table” which only suggests and not commands.

Through multiple revisions to my requests and suggestions, I learned that bicultural people don’t construe the identity they want.  They construe the identity that is acceptable within the culture where they live and want to be successful within.

Systemic Functional Linguistics answered many of those questions for me (though I still have some unanswered), because SFL does not describe the grammar of the ideal.  It describes the real.  It is a theory (a description) of the living language, as a dynamic system of choices in various configurations of register, as will be described below.

As mentioned above, Halliday’s theory of language is not purely theoretical.  It is a description of how language works.  He observed and documented (versus theorized only) the real language.  He observed his son Nigel and learned that Nigel developed his language in interactions with others, to get things done with language, as he was learning how to mean.

In addition, Halliday was also invested in describing how language and society are connected.  His theory of language was framed by the issues of social justice: why are certain people discriminated against because of variations in their language use, how language and society are connected, and how power and language are closely intertwined.   Some applications of his theory contributed to combating linguistic prejudices in education and beyond (e.g., Martin, Rose, Humphrey, Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, Gebhard, Harman, Brisk, and others).  Below I will describe the theory the way I understand it.  Putting my own learning into my own words, clarifies my knowledge and understanding of this roomy theory.  Also, please notice that I am not citing sources because my goal is not to come off as expert, but as a synthesis of my thoughts, a reflection of learning.  Again, if I were to be writing for a peer reviewed journal, the choice of language would have had to match the field of SFL, the tenor construed by language of a person who has taken on an expert role, and a mode of a scholarly academic journal writing expectations.  Also, please note that I am a completely self-taught learner of SFL, without any formal training during a course of a systematic study.  I do, however, have an opportunity to be continuously coached by Sally Humphrey (and others), an SFL knowledge builder from the Australian Catholic University.  The journey of learning has consisted of inquiry-based, driven by self-directed questions.  Having Sally to answer them has been of tremendous help.  I owe you Sally.  Thank you for answering my question on meta-redundancy of the SFL model with a cup of hot chocolate on Leichhardt Street.


Systemic Functional Linguistics describes language at three strata: genre – the context of culture, register – the context of situation, and the level of lexicogrammar.  The smallest level of language resources is the level of sounds.  Genre sets up the context of culture, e.g. Midwestern culture of communication.  Language choices at the smaller levels will be situated in that larger context of culture.  Register is the next strata.  It’s the context of the immediate situation.

SFL model of language (Hood)

Register is comprised of 3 variables: field, tenor, and mode.  These three dimensions of register are closely related and they are always present in each instance of language use.  Those three variables define the context of the immediate situation but always situated in the larger context of culture which is the genre.  In every exchange, we talk about something (field such as weather), with someone (tenor such as your coworkers to ease a tension before a meeting) and use language either in speaking or writing (mode such as casual chat or small talk).  The big idea of the register in SFL is that we make choices at those three dimensions and those choices are dynamic, but systematic, not random.  Below each register variable will be described.


Field is what’s going on, the topic in the exchange such as linguistics or coffee or puzzle construction or magnetic field or constructing a robotic arm in a science classroom, anything that serves as the central content in which language is situated.  Field expresses the “happenings and doings” of the exchange (Derewianka, 2014).  The resources that are used in the field are participants (the whos or the whats expressed through noun phrases), processes (actions, expressed through verb groups), and circumstances (the wheres and the hows, expressed through adverbials).


Tenor is concerned with the role relationships of those involved in language use, with the audience and voice.  Tenor is present regardless whether the exchange is a monolog or a dialog.  Tenor points to the fact that all of language is dialogic and even heteroglossic, similar to how Bakhtin spoke of all language use.   We use a particular tenor to construe our identity or position ourselves as self-confident and direct or timid and suggestive. We often talk to an audience full of people, even if the audience has the n of one.  In classroom contexts, students use tenor to take on expert roles when presenting their knowledge or engaging in debates.


The mode is concerned with what role language plays.  It’s more nuanced than just is it spoken or written?  Is it spoken-like (but written) or is written-like (but spoken)?  Are we texting, posting a facebook update or lecturing?  Halliday called attention to – and he was the first one to do it – the difference between written and spoken language.  He said (paraphrased) that written language is not spoken language written down.  It is a distinctly different activity that humans engage in.  Spoken languages existed long before written systems were created to encode the culture’s knowledge.  Written language is a more recent invention.  We don’t just use different language when we speak or when we write.  We do different things when we engage in those different modes.   But the mode of language is not dichotomous: spoken or written.  This brings me to the mode continuum (Martin, 1985).   The mode continuum places language use from language as action to language as reflection.  The mode continuum is defined by the distance between language and the social process occurring.  It also can be described as the “experiential distance”.  In the action end, language is part of the social process, while at the reflection end, language constitutes the social process.  Language as reflection, constructs the experiences.  In the language as action end of the continuum, the context helps the language such as pointing or the presence of people or things in the action.  In the language as reflection end, the language has to do the heavy lifting because there is not much in the context to help.  The language resources, therefore, have to be strategically selected for the experience to be construed so that the reader or listener can understand what’s going on.

The language as action can also be described using the words of Mary Macken-Horarik (1996) as the language of “here and now, you and me”.

The language accompanying action may not require complete sentences, precise words, and even objects might not need to be named.  We can use words like they and this thing, does this stuff and people can understand us because the context helps to fill in those gaps.  The language as reflection is constructed through language of abstraction and precision, because the context is not there to help.

language as action v language as reflection.PNG

Source: Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton PETAA Paper 196 The critical conversation about text: Joint construction. Available here.

Not all of language is the language as action.  Not all of language is the language as reflection.  Different language situations call for different modes.  Using Halliday’s words, language development is the expansion of meaning making potential.  We should not privilege language as reflection (e.g. language of textbooks) over the language as action (e.g. language of doing science), but should build on resources used in language as action to develop language used in reflecting on and constructing experiences.  For more information on how teachers can use the language as action to language as reflection continuum, please consult this resource.

Not all of language is the language as action.  Not all of language is the language as reflection.  Different language situations call for different modes.

To summarize, I’ll use Ruqaiya Hasan’s words: language is for the living of life, not for the production of structures.  We use language to do things with.  And yes, we can end sentences with prepositions, depending on our audience and our identity.  Some of us take on the rebel identity because we want to contest the artificial rules which do not reflect the living language, like Halliday and Hasan did.  They didn’t explicitly contest them (although Hasan did in her book Language and Society which I quoted widely on my Reclaiming the Language for Social Justice page), but by describing the language in its real actual use, they gave permission for us to say, “Wait a minute, but in this situation, with this audience, to construe this identity, we can even split infinitives.” Wink, if you hear me.


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