Learning to Mean

Let us first consider the language people produce and react to, what they say and write, and read and listen to, in the course of daily life. This we shall refer to as text. Any instance of language that is operational, as distinct from citational (like sentences in a grammar book, or words listed in a dictionary), is text. The term covers both speech and writing, and is quite neutral as regards style and content: it may be language in action, conversation, telephone talk, debate, dramatic dialogue, narrative fiction, poetry, prayer, inscriptions, public notices, legal proceedings, communing with animals, intimate monologue or anything else.

From birth onwards, a child is surrounded by text. There is a constant exchange of meanings going on all around him, in which he is in one way or another involved. …

What are the essential properties of text ? It is meaning, and it is choice. In the first place, text is meaning. We think of text first of all as words and sentences; and it is, certainly, encoded in words and sentences—in just the same way as those words and sentences are further encoded in sounds, or in letters. But text is not made of sounds or letters; and in the same way it is not made of words and phrases and clauses and sentences. It is made of meanings, and encoded in wordings, soundings and spellings. In other words, we are locating text at the semantic level. A text is a semantic unit, realized as (encoded in) lexicogrammatical units which are further realized as (recoded in) phonological or orthographic units.

Secondly, text is choice. A text represents a selection within numerous sets of options; everything that is said presupposes a background of what might have been said but was not. In linguistic terms, each decision of the speaker—each microlinguistic act, as it were—presupposes a paradigmatic environment, a set of options that have the potentiality of being selected under the given conditions. This is the background of what might have been. Since we have defined the text in semantic terms, however, we should replace say by mean. Text is ‘what is meant’—presupposing a background of what might have been meant but was not. The microlinguistic acts, or countless small choices that the speaker makes as he goes along, are actually microsemantic acts; what the speaker is doing is meaning. Hence a text is a semantic structure that is formed out of a continuous process of choice among innumerable interrelated sets of semantic options.

We are referring to the total set of such semantic options as the ‘meaning potential’. The meaning potential is what can be meant —the potential of the semantic system. … Text represents the actualization of this meaning potential. So everything the child says is interpreted—not just by a linguist, but by those who interact with the child in daily life— as a pattern of selection within the meanings that make up his semantic system at that time. …

There are two ways of looking at the meaning potential. We may interpret it in the context of the situation, or we may interpret it in the context of the culture … . We may choose to think of the meaning potential as being the whole semantic system of the language; or we may choose to think of it in the form of specific sub-systems each of which (or each set of which) is associated with a particular class of situations. The former is a fiction; we cannot describe the whole semantic system. The latter is also, of course, a fiction; but it may be a more accessible one. It may be possible to represent the meaning potential in the form of sets of options that are specific to a given situation type.

Meanwhile the meanings by which the child is surrounded are, as always, meanings in context. They relate to their environment, and are interpreted in relation to their environment—to the context of situation, in other words. The situation is the medium in which text lives and breathes. … In modern jargon, it is the ecology of the text. It is a characteristic of the adult language system that the text it engenders is not tied to the immediate scenario as its relevant environment. The context of situation of a text may be entirely remote from what is happening around the act of speaking or writing.

Consider a traditional story as it is told by a mother to her child at bedtime. Here the context of situation is on two levels. On the one hand there is the immediate environment, the interaction of mother and child under particular circumstances that are associated with intimacy and relaxation. On the other hand there is the fictive environment conjured by the text itself, the imaginary world of wolves and woodcutters in which the events described take place. It is only in very strictly pragmatic contexts, those of language in action as it has been called, where the text is simply an ancillary to some activity that the participants are engaged in, that the context of situation can be identified with the visible and tangible phenomena surrounding the text: and even here, these phenomena are likely to be endowed with social values.

For this reason we are interpreting the concept of’ situation’ in still more abstract terms, as a semiotic structure deriving from the totality of meaning relations that constitutes the social system. This makes it possible to talk not so much about the particulars of this or that actual context of situation in which a given text is located but rather about the set of general features that characterizes a certain situation type. The way in which a generalized context of situation, or situation type, might be represented as a semiotic construct will be discussed in the next section.

The first two of the concepts to be brought into relation, therefore, are those of text and situation: text as semantic choice, and situation as the semiotic environment of text. The third to be added to these is the concept of register. The register is the semantic variety of which a text is an instance.

A register can be defined as a particular configuration of meanings that is associated with a particular situation type. In any social context, certain semantic resources are characteristically employed … . These define the register. Considered in terms of the notion of meaning potential, the register is the range of meaning potential that is activated by the semiotic properties of the situation.

To return to the same example, there are certain types of meanings that are typically associated with traditional stories as told to children. These are not simply thing-meanings, names of persons and animals and objects and events that typically figure in such stories, though these are a part of the picture; but also characteristic role relationships, chains of events, patterns of dialogue, and special types of complex semantic structures such as are represented in expressions like and she was so (frightened, &c.) that she (ran and ran, &c.); but the third time he tried, he (managed to reach, &c). The set of such typical meanings and combinations of meanings constitutes the register of traditional children’s narratives in very many cultures and sub-cultures. …

In the present context, what concerns us most within the linguistic system is the semantic system. We are considering the semantic system not from a conceptual but from a functional point of view, as a potential in respect of certain semiotic operations; and in particular we are considering its organization into basic components which are of a functional kind. … Whatever the particular situation type, the meanings that are expressed are of three kinds, which we have called ‘ideational’, ‘interpersonal’ and ‘textual’.

The infinitely varied properties of different situations, the types of activity, the role relationships, and the symbolic channels, are all realized through selections in these three areas of meaning potential. The ideational represents the potential of the system for the speaker as an observer: it is the content function of language, language as about something. The interpersonal is the potential of the system for the speaker as an intruder: it is the participatory function of language, language as doing something. The textual is the potential of the system for the creation of text: it is the relevance function of language, whereby the meanings derived from the other functional components relate to the environment and thus become operational.

These are the functional components of the adult semantic system; with only trivial exceptions (such as Hi! as a greeting, which presumably has no ideational element in its makeup), any adult exchange of meanings involves all three components. Whatever the particular use of language on this or that occasion, whatever the subject-matter and the genre and the purpose of the communication, there will be a choice of content, a choice of interaction type, and a choice of texture. These are the different kinds of meaning potential of the system. But they are also the formally definable components of the lexicogrammatical system; these different semantic realms appear as clearly defined, mutually independent sets of options at the formal level. It is this that enables, and disposes, the child to learn the lexicogrammar: since the system is organized along functional lines, it relates closely to what the child can see language doing as he observes it going on around him. …

A situation type, or social context … is characterized by a particular semiotic structure, a complex of features which sets it apart from other situation types. This structure can then be interpreted on three dimensions: in terms of the ongoing activity (field), the role relationships involved (tenor), and the symbolic or rhetorical channel (mode). The first of these, the field, … is the field of action, including symbolic action, in which the text has its meaning. It therefore includes what we usually call ‘subject-matter’, which is not an independent feature but is a function of the type of activity. The second, the tenor, … refers to the role relationships that are embodied in the situation, which determine levels of formality and speech styles but also very much else besides. The third heading, that of mode, … refers to the symbolic channel or wavelength selected, which is really the semiotic function or functions assigned to language in the situation. Hence this includes the distinction between speech and writing as a special case.

Field, tenor and mode are not kinds of language use; still less are they varieties of language. Nor are they, however, simply generalized components of the speech situation. They are, rather, the environmental determinants of text. Given an adequate specification of the situation in terms of field, tenor and mode, we ought to be able to make certain predictions about the linguistic properties of the text that is associated with it: that is, about the register, the configurations of semantic options that typically feature in this environment, and hence also about the grammar and vocabulary, which are the realizations of the semantic options. The participants in the situation themselves make just such predictions. It is one of the features of the social system, as a semiotic system, that the members can and do make significant predictions about the meanings that are being exchanged, predictions which depend on their interpretation of the semiotics of the situation type in which they find themselves. This is an important aspect of the potential of the system, and it is this that we are trying to characterize. …

We referred above to the tripartite functional composition of the adult semantic system, with its components of ideational, interpersonal and textual. It was mentioned that this scheme was not something that is arrived at from the outside; this organization is clearly present in the lexicogrammatical system—as seen, for example, in the threefold structuring of the clause in English in terms of transitivity (ideational), mood (interpersonal) and theme (textual). Now it appears that each of these different components of meaning is typically activated by a corresponding component in the semiotic structure of the situation. Thus, the field is associated with the ideational component, the tenor with the interpersonal component, and the mode with the textual component. …

[D]ifferent emphases and contrasts in perspective [have] characterized the renewed interest in language development studies from the mid 1960′s onwards, in particular the rather artificial polarization between two conceptions of language and language learning, one as genetically endowed and readymade, the other as environmentally fashioned and evolving. It is refreshing to find language development studies in the 1970′s moving away from this rather sterile debate, in a direction which puts language in a less insulated and more relevant perspective. Language is no longer being thought of as an autonomous object; nor is language development seen any longer as a kind of spontaneous once-for-all happening resting on a given biological foundation, to be achieved by a certain maturational stage or not at all. …

The focus of attention has gone from the phonological system, to the lexicogrammatical system (syntax), to the semantic system, and is now moving out to the cognitive system. In the latest analysis, the learning process is a process of cognitive development and the learning of the mother tongue is an aspect of it and is conditioned by it. … [W]e have adopted the alternative perspective—one that is complementary to the cognitive one, not contradictory to it—of locating this higher level semiotic not in the cognitive system but in the social system. The social semiotic is the system of meanings that defines or constitutes the culture; and the linguistic system is one mode of realization of these meanings. The child’s task is to construct the system of meanings that represents his own model of social reality. This process takes place inside his own head; it is a cognitive process. But it takes place in contexts of social interaction, and there is no way it can take place except in these contexts. As well as being a cognitive process, the learning of the mother tongue is also an interactive process. It takes the form of the continued exchange of meanings between the self and others. The act of meaning is a social act.

The social context is therefore not so much an external condition on the learning of meanings as a generator of the meanings that are learnt. And part of the social context is the language that is used by the interactants—the language the child hears around him. …

The essential condition of learning is the systematic link between semantic categories and the semiotic properties of the situation. The child can learn to mean because the linguistic features in some sense relate to features of the environment. But the environment is a social construct. It does not consist of things, or even of processes and relations; it consists of human interaction, from which the things derive their meaning. …

Meaning is at the same time both a component of social action and a symbolic representation of the structure of social action. The semiotic structure of the environment—the ongoing social activity, the roles and statuses, and the interactional channels—both determines the meanings exchanged and is created by and formed out of them. This is why we understand what is said, and are able to fill out the condensations and unpeel the layers of projection. It is also why the system is permeable, and the process of meaning subject to pressures from the social structure. The particular modes and patterns of meaning that tend to be associated with different types of social context are determined by the culture, through a process that Bernstein has interpreted and referred to by the term ‘codes’. The reality that the child constructs is that of his culture and sub-culture, and the ways in which he learns to mean and to build up registers—configurations of meanings associated with features of the social context—are also those of his culture and sub-culture. He builds the semiotic of his own society, through interaction in family, in peer group, and, later in school. …

[T]he attempt to understand the structure of the child’s utterances leads us directly into questions about the linguistic system as a whole, and specifically questions about the functions for which that system first develops. There is an important link between the two senses of ‘function’, the first as in ‘functions in structure’ and the second as in ‘functions of language’: the former, when interpreted semantically, imply the latter. The functional roles that combine to make up a linguistic structure, such as Agent + Process + Goal + Location, reflect the particular function of language that that structure has evolved to serve—in this case the interpretation of experience of the external world.

But whether or not the line of approach is through considerations of structure, once the interest is focussed on how the child learns a system of meanings this points to some kind of investigation in functional terms. It becomes necessary to look beyond the language itself, but at the same time to do so without presupposing a particular conceptual framework, because this is precisely what the child is using language to construct; and herein lies the value of a functional approach. Early language development may be interpreted as the child’s progressive mastery of a functional potential. …

[S]ince we are concerned with the language of the child—it presupposes a concept of cultural transmission within which the role of language in the transmission process may be highlighted and defined. Here the concept of meaning, and of learning to mean, is in the last analysis interpreted in sociological terms, in the context of some chain of dependence such as: social order—transmission of the social order to the child—role of language in the transmission process—functions of language in relation to this role—meanings derived from these functions.

In this way the functional interpretation of the child’s meanings implies a sociolinguistic approach, in which the learning of the mother tongue is interpreted as a process of interaction between the child and other human beings. From this perspective, … the focus of attention is on the linguistic system as a whole, considered as having a (functionally organized) meaning potential, or a semantic system, at one end, and a vocal potential, or phonological system, at the other. In this context, structure no longer occupies the centre of the stage; it enters in because it is one form of the realization of meanings.

This has certain important consequences for the investigation of language development. The analysis does not depend on utterances of more than one element, that is, on combinations of words as structural units. This is particularly significant because, although the word in the sense of a lexical item or lexeme (i.e. vocabulary) soon comes to play an essential part in the development of the child’s linguistic system, the word as a structural unit, which is a different concept, does not, or does so much less prominently. A word in this latter sense is merely one type of constituent among others; and the young child has no special awareness of words as constituents, any more than he has of groups or clauses. From the functional point of view, as soon as there are meaningful expressions there is language, and the investigation can begin at a time before words and structures have evolved to take over the burden of realization.

It then emerges that the child already has a linguistic system before he has any words or structures at all. He is capable of expressing a considerable range of meanings, meanings which at first seem difficult to pin down, because they do not translate easily into adult language, but which become quite transparent when interpreted functionally, in the light of the question “What has the child learnt to do by means of language ?’ The transition from this phase into the adult system can also be explained in functional terms, although it becomes necessary to modify the concept of function very considerably in passing from the developmental origins of the system, where ‘function’ equals ‘use’, to the highly abstract sense in which we can talk of the functional organization of the adult language. However, this modification in the concept ‘function of language’ is itself one of the major sources of insight into the process whereby the adult system evolves from that of the child.


Halliday, M.A.K. 1975. Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold, pp.122-131, 138-139, 143-144, 5-6. || Amazon || WorldCat


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