Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) – Biting Off More Than I Can Chew (BOMTICC)?


Over the past few weeks I’ve become fascinated with a framework (if not an entire theory of language!) known as Systemic Functional Linguistics, BUT… has this fascination led to a situation in which I find myself up the metaphorical creek (which apparently you do in a suit?!) Cue the dramatic orchestral music!

“I thought I was really onto something.” – I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve said this to myself since delving into the Ph.D process, but it’s a phrase that (apparently) bears repeating. It was the phrase running through my head when my initial theories were confronted with a barrage of “been there, done that, so what?” questions, and it’s starting to make a reappearance…

The reason for its return revolves around a little (read: gigantic) thing known as Systemic Functional Linguistics, or SFL for short. Attributed to a gent known as M.A.K Halliday, alongside many influential academics such as Christian Matthiessen, this theory, system, grammar, set of structures, set of ideas… whatever you want to define it as, focuses on language as a way of doing or meaning something, influenced by both context and the choices we make in language. That’s to say: you don’t speak just to speak. You do it to achieve something in certain contexts, and SFL aims to explain how this happens.

“Excellent,” I exclaimed! “This fits snuggly with my ideas of observing context, formality and language patterns in BSL…”


“…a little *too* snuggly.”

I would later find out that yes, SFL can be applied to sign languages and no, this hasn’t exactly been done in any great detail as of yet*, but it does also mean that the semiotic systems behind it haven’t been noted down much… if at all.

Allow me to explain: an SFL approach views the structures of different aspects of language as paradigmatic choice systems. There are wonderfully big and scary diagrams, such as this one:


If we read the top-most path, a clause (a part or whole of a sentence) can be either indicative (a statement) or imperative (a command). If it’s indicative, it will either be interrogative (a question) or declarative (a declaration). If it’s interrogative, it will either be a yes/no question or a Wh- question (who, what, where, etc.)… and we follow the system through as such. In any case, this system shows that you can only follow certain paths. In other words, a clause cannot be both indicative and imperative, but two clauses put beside each other could be.

There are numerous systems used for numerous analyses and numerous people have contributed to them. These link into the theoretical architecture of language as interpreted by SFL. While I won’t go into it here (although, if you’re interest is peaked, I recommend this lecture by Annabelle Lukin to get you started) it is important to stress that, from my point of view at least, this system provides a comprehensive and flexible approach to the study of language…

…the English language.

So it’s all well and good reading about the systems, the theoretical architectures and potential for deep semantic analysis in a wide-ranging semiotic system… but how can this apply to BSL? It has been applied to other languages before, but as for BSL, my answer right now is:


The only two possible paths I can envision now are:

  1. Take a dive with the current system and see how far it can be applied to BSL. Pro: less overall work. Con: may not correlate at all
  2. Look at creating a set of new systems based upon BSL and work with the universal SFL constants. Pro: no such thing exists (to the best of my knowledge) so it would be a great resource to have. Con: I may need a few lifetimes to do this

If I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know…


*Hello, original contribution to knowledge. How you doin’?


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