Sys-Func/Sysfling Discussion On Context, Stratification & Instantiation

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My critique of the recent Sys-Func/Sysfling discussion on context, stratification and instantiation can be found by clicking here.

Context Vs Co-text


Halliday (2007 [1991]: 271):
Originally, the context meant the accompanying text, the wording that came before and after whatever was under attention. In the nineteenth century it was extended to things other than language, both concrete and abstract: the context of the building, the moral context of the day; but if you were talking about language, then it still referred to the surrounding words, and it was only in modern linguistics that it came to refer to the non-verbal environment in which language was used. When that had happened, it was Catford, I think, who suggested that we now needed another term to refer explicitly to the verbal environment; and he proposed the term “co-text”.

Are register and genre, modelled as strata, theorised on the notion of context or co-text?

signs of human activity near lake albert, SA

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i’m just a creature of my semiosis

one lane, no cars

social action: field or mode?



So paraphrasing field as social activity does not recognise the verbal action aspect of social activity. Verbal actions such as those of explaining, defining, narrating, reporting, chronicling, lecturing and a myriad of others that I would describe as verbal actions are treated as a matter of mode in the current SFL models of context. From this perspective, the distinction between field and mode is suspiciously reminiscent of the distinction between the what and the how, the content and the style, which has always been popular in literary criticism.(270)

…the notion of social activity must be reconceptualised to cover both action and locution, both material and verbal action, and my recent exploration of the relations of context and text appears to support this position. (271)

Table 10 suggests that linguistic models of context which treat material action as a matter of field and verbal action as a matter of [ancillary] v. [constitutive] mode might have greater difficulty in identifying those environments where textual integration or co-location might be at risk (280-281)

3.4 Ancillary and constitutive verbal action: field or mode ?
… In agreement with other systemicists’ views, I too have typically treated the distinction between constitutive and ancillary as a matter of mode, even despite occasional misgivings (see Section 2.3 and footnote 58): I suggested, in fact, that the two terms refer to the two endpoints of a cline, viz., the role of language (see Hasan 1980, 1985b etc; for further discussion and development, see Cloran 1994). In SFL, persuasion, explanation, definition, etc, are described as categories of rhetorical mode.
…the role language is playing or what it is doing in the social situation (cf Halliday’s remarks in Ch1) are not aspects of mode, nor is rhetorical mode really a phenomenon that belongs in mode: rather, these various cases of speaking, viz., persuading, explaining, joking, narrating are cases of verbal action. There seems no reason for suggesting that instead of verbal action, they are just a modality or mode for bringing that action about, especially since the actions in question are un-doable any other way except verbally…

as the description of the field of discourse progresses in delicacy, it would become possible to identify the specific lexicogrammatical and semantic domains at risk in the realisation of specific choices from the systems of field: such work is in fact well under weigh (see Halliday & Martin 1993; also Matthiessen, in press). This claim takes us to a higher level concept, to what I have called genre specific semantic potential elsewhere (Hasan 1985b:98ff.) which consists of the meanings and wordings that are crucial to the identity of a register, which is naturally related to the notion of domain of signification. (287)

[my emphasis]

language and context of situation



From the point of view of instantiation, situation is to culture as text is to language; the first term of each proportion instantiates the second:

situation: culture :: text: language

From the point of view of realisation, language is to situation; the first term of each proportion realises the second:

language: culture :: text: situation

Current SFL models possess no satisfactory means of contextual and/ or registral changes which do not disturb the unity of the text, nor can they specify where i.e., in what kind(s) of social situation, such changes are most at risk.


the pattern which connects

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I remember the boredom of analyzing sentences and the boredom later, at Cambridge, of learning comparative anatomy. Bothe subjects, as taught, were torturously unreal. We could have been told something about the pattern which connects: that all communication necessitates context, that without context, there is no meaning, and that contexts confer meaning because there is a classification of contexts. The teacher could have argued that growth and differentiation must be controlled by communication. The shapes of plants and animals are the transforms of messages. Language itself is a form of communication. The structure of the input must somehow be reflected as structure in the output. Anatomy must contain an analogue of grammar because all anatomy is a transform of message material, which must be contextually shaped. And finally, contextual shaping is only another term for grammar.
So we come back to the patterns of connection and the more abstract, and more general (and most empty) proposition that, indeed, there is a pattern of patterns of connection.

Gregory Bateson (1979) from the Introduction to “Mind and Nature”.

The Difference Between Context And Register


Context is realised by language.

Registers are types of language (that realise types of context).

The context-language relation is value-token.

The register-language relation is carrier-attribute.

I return to Sydney and notice stylistic affectations

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Having just returned from a longish sojourn in what is fondly called round here ‘the outback’ on a small research foray paid for by an institution which shall remain nameless lest I besmirch their up-till-now fairly fine reputation, I began to remark to myself that the environs in which I now languish on a short sabbatical courtesy of my old friend eldon – to wit, the villages of Enmore, Newtown, and Erskineville – far from being inhabited by outlandish independently-minded personae as I had been warned (or perhaps ‘regaled’ might be the better term), were actually populated by an array of varieties of human tribes of different age brackets, who identify their allegiances by being attired in a number of easily identifiable uniforms.

Of course, I admit at the outset that my use of the term ‘uniform’ speaks not of exact uniformity, certainly not of the ilk enforced at the hands of the teachers at the schools of my youth, places where rulers were applied to the knee to ascertain the exact distance of hem from that knee whilst kneeling on the floor, and at which troupes of girls about to leave on excursions out of school grounds were lined up for an inspection by headmistress and denied the small pleasure of group travel should their livery be in any way different from that laid down by the official documents she held dear. No, my use of the term uniform here speaks more to the loose requirements of latter-day secondary colleges who demand that their inmates pay homage at least to the school colours and officially-sanctioned items of vestment, but who are free to mix and match along fundamental lines which allow members of the student body to be recognised as affiliated with their specific secondary communities only by virtue of a compositional coherence with respect to a certain arrangement of garments, which in turn provides an associative value – an index if you will – pointing to the school with which these colours and arrangements can be traced.

I acknowledge that I am primed to notice tribal affiliations, especially those manifested in the visual indicators of clothing and accessories, and have already spent quantities of focussed observatory time in Japan taking notes on the means by which the Japanese – many of whom strive to be recognised easily as belonging to a particular social grouping – indicate their affiliation with such groupings so that they may not create confusion in anyone’s mind, and may thus be conveniently addressed in an appropriate manner whilst going about their everyday duties. I refer, for example, to the well-documented tribe of ‘housewife’, a noble profession in Japan, whose domestic duties encompass a scope and quality handed down by generations of devoted employees of their husbands and their husbands’ mothers. These noble women can be seen going about their shopping day, on busses and on bicycles wearing the typical bibbed pinafore over their normal clothing, an item which denotes the housewifely calling. Normal clothing for the Japanese housewife is also fairly strictly demarcated, and consists of a pale-coloured shirt teamed with either a dowdy skirt or pair of loose trousers. That they do not remove their protective garment before leaving the house underlines their need for recognition as employed in this capacity, since both other housewives and shopkeepers alike must be alerted to their status as dutiful holders of the household reins, and keeper of the household purse.

During my recent stay up-country in outback Australia, in a town a little further from civilisation than I normally care to sojourn, I was accommodated in a local pub. I will not go into the reasons here regarding why I did not avail myself of the more salubrious offering at the motel on the outskirts of town, but I might mention both the distance factor and the pecuniary factor as primary decision-makers in the matter. My official research there did not entail the observation of the local white community, but this being my natural inclination anyway, after a while and upon attending one or two shopping days in the town as well as one race meeting, it became apparent that the graziers or ‘cow cockies’ thereabouts were also prone to identify themselves with an arrangement of particular clothing types and even brand-names – I hesitate to declare, as I am ignorant of the taxonomy of names of those fashion houses who supply the apparel for the man on the land. The primary items of this apparel were, as usual for males, a pair of trousers and a shirt. In my notes I observed that the shirt needed to have two breast pockets, or failing that, needed to be patterned in very small cross-hatching on the vertical and horizontal. The trousers were by preference moleskins, and of an off-white colour. The outfit needed to be teamed with, on the feet, riding boots, at the lower waist a plaited leather belt in brown, and on the head a flat-brimmed hat. There was also the variation of the tie, with the woven khaki variety finding popularity amongst the middle-aged set. Younger members of the group effected American style broad-brimmed hats, and occasionally higher heels on the boots, with the here-and-there affectation of the American-style shoe-lace affair threaded about the collar and fastened at the neck with a device in the shape of a stock animal, but generally the uniform was adhered to – not so much that that members might recognise each other more easily, but that the un-landed gentry might recognise their betters.

And so it is that I have come to observe the latest affiliatory signifiers of the people on the streets near to where I am presently taking my ease. I have been reliably informed that one style, or should I say constellation of artefacts worn at the same time that represent an overall style, can be labelled as ‘indie’. But there the tribal or associative relationships indexed by these sets of worn-artefacts ends for me – I am not apprised of what ‘indie’ (presumably shortened from the word ‘independent’ but I do not observe any shred of independence in the wearers of this style) signifies in terms of dress code or approach to ‘life’, and hence the identity to which indie-aficionados hope to aspire. The reader will have noted that I have up till now mentioned one or two very brief descriptions pertaining to arrangements of clothing forms – or items that constitute an affiliatory practice – which have been either related to institution, e.g. school, or profession e.g. grazier or housewife. However, the local practices I speak of in respect of younger people as well as older non-employed persons cannot be traced to their identification with a place or mode of employ.

So, for example, although we note on the streets of Enmore and Newtown a repeated pattern exemplified by the very fine pin stripe shirt, well-fitting trousers, teamed with low-profile tie and belt, as well as a trim haircut – which style indexes the real estate agent – we also note a variety of other styles which are not traceable to specific work practices. Thus, I am not talking here about those people who are obviously dressed for the job, in particular the manual labouring jobs which necessitate shorts and slightly dirty T-shirts or shirts actually emblazoned with the company insignia. I refer more specifically to those who have chosen to wear what they do as a index of their personal style, as if style itself were the identity of the persons so attired.

Hence my aim is to accumulate notes on the observed apparel on the streets and cafes of the locale, and to build up a sense of repeated patterns, of generalised shapes (or ‘lines’ as I believe they used to be called), fabric patterns, footwear, hairstyles (as they also signify in this area of description) and accessories – especially carry-bags, scarves and hats. This should provide a means of making generalisations which may lead at the same time to the ability of calculating – or at least throwing into high relief – boundary lines between styles and their offshoots, such that further enquiries could be more profitably made regarding the reasoning behind persons’ effecting of these styles through arrangement of clothing form.

Work in the field has obviously already been done in the public arena and the private sphere, and here I am thinking of the published findings and recommendations made by two researchers known as Trinny and Susanah who have made available a very useful book (due to its many photographic illustrations) called “Who do you want to be today?” in which they imply the strong link between what is worn and one’s identity. Some of the identities they have provided are helpfully labelled in a type of intertextual shorthand, examples being the following: “rock chick”, “gamine”, “ice-queen”, “avant-garde eccentric”, and so on. In passing I note that there are confusions here of logical levels of analysis – since ‘gamine’ refers to appearance rather than persona, and the others in the cited list refer to persona and attitude – but I hope therefore to avoid such confusions in my own note-taking and analysis. In addition, while I find the use of such labels an act of efficiency by way of a convenient temporary box in which to group sets of phenomena, I am rarely tied to the labels I use for identification of related elements – rather, it is the grouping of elements together – against the differences, contrasts or boundary conditions between groups of elements – that are most important to these endeavours.

In this spirit, I first make observation of one personal identity type seen inhabiting the streets of Enmore and Newtown, which I am wont to call gothic-punk. It seems from many years of exposure to the punk orientation in its several guises and latter day interpretations, that the styles which adherents adopt in order to be identified as punk have now more than bifurcated, and have instead been adulterated by a number of other styles, so that there are cross-pollinations of style seen on the streets. One of the adulterations is the gothic orientation, and my reasoning for using the term ‘goth’ as a qualifier of the base term ‘punk’ is related to chronology in style appearance and the history of adoption and adaptation wherein ‘punk’ has a longer street history pertaining to clothing selections – not, I hasten to add, a longer history per se.

A description of the gothic-punk style necessitates in turn, a list of possible paradigmatic alternatives – that or else mere generalisations related to classification of the regularly donned items of apparel. I am thwarted in this endeavour by a learned ignorance on the names of the styles of shoes, types of clothing, and other accoutrements related to garments, so that description should not be tainted by what I think I ‘know’ about fashion or the clothing industry in general, but will remain a purer, more fundamental description losing out in specificity what it gains in authenticity. I am also keen to distinguish my first steps in description as a paltry endeavour in one sense, but also not a description of the language of fashion a la Roland Barthes. Instead, notes on clothing combinations of the day form an actual report on the observable patterns in appearance effected by the street-walking public – at least as I observe them in a small locale in Sydney, and occasioned in this instance by my sudden awareness upon returning to Sydney that the styles repeated as patterned social behaviour hereabouts constituted a set of patterns on their own – although of course, not isolated from the general melee of clothing trends that are the bread & butter of the world wide web these days. At the same time, the mix and obviousness of the styling in these parts prompting me to anthropological endeavours in the same vein as the previous local case studies I have been involved in over the years.
Thus, I adjure all who have bothered to read thus far to anticipate verbal descriptions starting from the head and working down of a number of locally apparent clothing combinations in future communications.

music written for context


david byrne argues that context, specifically architecture – or actually the space for which the music was conceived to be performed – affected the development of musical styles.

…along the way, he notes that birds also make different calls dependent on the type of habitat they commonly go to sing…

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