genre and register

Jim Martin jmartin at MAIL.USYD.EDU.AU
Wed Jul 4 22:53:05 UTC 2007

Hi all

There is so much to consider... let's start with this...

Some of us are pursuing a model in which a deep model of perception 
(including memory etc), following Edelman's theory of neural group 
selection, would cooperate with a deep model of semiosis (including 
languaage and other modalities of communication), which would make the 
mind redundant.

This is not saying that brains don't exist; that's for Edelman's TNGS to 
sort out. But it is suggesting that as his work develops and our work on 
semiosis develops, we won't need a concept of mind mediating between the 

Edelman has two recent popularisations of his work (google Amazon), but 
its good to start with the earlier Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. Halliday 
discusses the relation of social semiotics to TNGS in Vol 3 of his 
collected works, On Language and Linguistics, Continuum ('Language in 
relation to the evolution of human consciousness').

Halliday & Matthiessen, Construing Experience through Meaning 
(Continuum), outline in some detail how concepts can be reconceived as 
meanings, so that cognitive and social semiotic approaches can be 
treated as alternative perspectives on the same phenomena (not in an 
additive relation to one another).

So the issue is not whether an SFL model of language and context is 
inadequate because its lacks a theory of cognition. The issue is whether 
we prefer, for some reasons or others, a tri-partite model including 
brain, cognition and semiosis, or a two part model, interfacing brain 
with semiosis.

I think the two part model will develop in more interesting ways because 
it is easier to relate more directly to the phenomena we are trained to 
consider as semioticians (texts) and as neo-Darwinian neuro-biologists 
(brains). On my biased reading, the mind is inferred from texts or 
brains, and so is harder to ground in what we are trained to analyse.

There are of course lifetimes of argumentation and research by people 
far more knowledgeable than me involved in exploring the three part and 
two part models.


Teun A. van Dijk wrote:

> Thanks! Federico, for your detailed explanation of the use(s) of 
> 'genre' and 'register' in Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and 
> the differences between the classical approach (Halliday, et al.) and 
> that of the "Sydney School" (Martin, et al.).
> It is good to have this debate on this list, because many people 
> working in CDA have been inspired by SFL, so it is important to assess 
> what SFL has to offer CDA and discourse studies in general.
> I am sure Jim Martin himself may in some stage have something to say 
> about this.
> Not being an expert in SFL, I am of course unable to make a detailed 
> judgment about the various SFL approaches to 'genre' and 'register', 
> but my concern, not only as this list convenor but also as an editor 
> of several journals in discourse studies and of introductory books, 
> are the contributions of various schools of discourse studies (of 
> which SFL is no doubt one of the most prominent) to the whole field. 
> One of my many roles, in this case, is also to stress the importance 
> of clarity, transparency, and accessibility for students and scholars 
> from neighboring disciplines.
> Whatever the immense contributions of SFL to linguistics and discourse 
> studies, I continuously have problems with the relative lack of 
> clarity and accessibility of much SF jargon, which is quite different 
> from other linguistic schools. Now, each school, sect and approach has 
> its own technical terms, and each school has lot of various 
> definitions of terms, but this is especially the case for SFL.
> I have shown in great detail, in a separate chapter of my new book on 
> context, that and how this is the case for the notion of context. For 
> those interested, here is an advance version of that chapter, showing 
> why and how this notion in SFL is extremely vague, and in my view 
> theoretically totally misguided. Some other critical remarks on SFL 
> are also made in that chapter, such as the prevalent anti-cognitivism 
> of (most of) SFL. Those who want some more substance and arguments to 
> what I say below, are referred to that (very) critical chapter - 
> critical, because for a variety of reasons, such as internal 
> solidarity, etc. such critique is difficult withing SFL itself, also 
> because it is about fundamental SF notions, and someone had to say it 
> one day, and although I seldom engage in systematic critique of 
> special schools in linguistics and discourse analysis, this one was I 
> think necessary given the role of SFL in CDA.
> The anti-cognitivism of SFL is one of the explanations why in a theory 
> of genre, classical SFL has no place for goals, purposes or intentions 
> - which Federico points out are accepted by Jim Martin, and which in 
> my view are crucial in any kind of action, interaction or social 
> practice definition of genres: as already traditional philosophy of 
> action has shown, and contemporary cognitive science makes explicit: 
> actions are bodily events that are more or less consciously intended 
> (and as such understood), and executed to reach specific goals (which 
> agents represent in episodic memory, namely as mental models). In my 
> view this is standard cognitive theory, and any multidisciplinary 
> approach to discourse and hence to genre should include such a 
> dimension. But, this is only /one/ of the dimensions of the context - 
> because we also need the dimension of the participants and their 
> social roles (again, as represented by the participants themselves, 
> obvioiusly, and not by the analyst, because it is the /subjective 
> definition of the situation by the participants/ that defines the 
> context). A genre definition of (say) parliamentary debates without 
> mentioning MPs is obviously incomplete.
> Also, famous SF notions such as /field, mode /and /tenor/ (also 
> mentioned by Federico) have no precise meaning at all, and it is 
> really surprising, to put it mildly, how they have survived decades of 
> linguistic research in SFL.
> I am afraid that what I have written on context also applies to some 
> of the other notions dealt with in SFL, and Federico's rendering of 
> different SF positions on genre and egister again seems to confirm my 
> point: the notions are so vague, and each person has another, equally 
> vague definition -- say of register (and I cite Federico's citations, 
> assuming they are correct):
> - “A configuration of meanings that are typically associated with a 
> particular situational configuration of field, mode and tenor” 
> (Halliday & Hasan, 1985:38-9),
> Apart from the problematic nature of the notions /field/, /mode/ and 
> /tenor/ (see my attached article), the expression "a configuration of 
> meaning" is much too general and vague for comfort. Does this mean 
> that register is defined (only) in /semantic /terms? What is the 
> nature of such a configuration? Are there no grammatical (syntactic, 
> lexical) dimensions involved in register?
> “the configuration of semantic resources that the member of the 
> culture associates with a situation type. It is the meaning potential 
> that is accessible in a given social context” (Halliday 1978:111)
> So, registers are semantic!? But "configuration of semantic resources" 
> - as well as the well-known but equally vague notion of "meaning 
> potential" used in SFL, do not tell me much about what registers are. 
> What kind of 'semantic resources'? Propositional structures? 
> Entailments? Presuppositions?
> But THAT is strange, because what seems to define different practices, 
> contexts, styles, etc. (like formal and informal, etc.), is precisely 
> NOT the meaning of discourse, but its forms, formats, etc. That is, we 
> may communicate (display, express, etc.) more or less the 'same' 
> meaning (propositions, etc.) in different contexts, but need to do 
> this in different forms or formats, and it is /that/ what we usually 
> understand by register (see also Biber & Finegan). Thus, telling the 
> "same" story (say about a robbery) in a news article, in the police 
> station and to friends in conversation may have more or less the same 
> meaning (propositions, event model, etc) but the registers - as 
> required by the context - are different -- and so are the genres 
> (which need much more than just a definition of register). In other 
> words, a "semantic" definition of register is very strange.
> But let is not despair... As usual in SF there are many ways to define 
> the 'same' (?) notion:
> , “the patterns of instantiation of the overall system associated with 
> a given type of context” and “ways of using language in different 
> contexts” (Halliday & Matthiessen 2004:27)
> But now, there is no reference to semantics or meaning but to an even 
> vaguer notion "patterns of instantiation of the overall system". Does 
> this include phonology, syntax, lexicon, semantics, etc. (not to speak 
> of pragmatics, etc. because most of classical SFL never discovered 
> that part of linguistics). Is this way of formulating not more or less 
> the same as saying that register is the way language is used in each 
> context -- as indeed the second quote confirms? Fine, that is slightly 
> more accessible, but still much too vague and too general. And, this 
> is not even the beginning of a theory of register, because one needs 
> to be clear about how language can vary with context in the first 
> place (and what does not - like most of syntax, which is invariant in 
> any context, and hence by definition not contextually sensitive and 
> hence not part of register).
> I may continue for nearly all quotations given by Federico. Generally, 
> I think they are intolerably vague, confused, ambiguous, contradictory 
> or theoretically incorrect. If they are accessible at all. Take the 
> last paragraph:
> (...) the main difference between both perspectives is that the school 
> of Sydney –Martin in particular– claims that the Systemic-Functional 
> model must include a set of specifications that go beyond situational 
> context. In short, this model will be able to distinguish between a 
> level of typical meaning potential associated to local context (i.e., 
> register) and a level of typical meaning potential associated to a 
> wider –global– context (i.e., genre). Both levels or strata are 
> systematically related: genre options are realized in register 
> options, which are also realized in lower strata. Halliday would argue 
> that the genre level is just unnecessary, while Martin claims that 
> this distinction has proved useful for a number of reasons (cf. Martin 
> 1992:505-7).
> I guess this is comprehensible for SF linguists, but I bet most of my 
> students (and I myself) not schooled in this jargon have difficulty 
> understanding what all this is about. Do we know, after this, what 
> "genre" and and "register" mean exactly in the different schools of 
> SFL? I am afraid I don't, and I honestly tried, because I celebrate 
> diversity of approaches in discourse studies. But I also celebrate 
> clarity of terminology and accessibility.
> The questions remain: What do we teach our students? How do we 
> describe genres? Is the notion of 'register' useful at all? If so, how 
> should it be used to describe genres? How is it different from 'style' 
> (which also varies with context)? And how is it related to the (much 
> more explicit) usage in other approaches, e.g. in quantitative and 
> sociolinguistics (Biber & Finegan, etc.).
> Teun
> ________________________________________
> Teun A. van Dijk
> Universitat Pompeu Fabra
> Dept. de Traducció i Filologia
> Rambla 30
> 08002 Barcelona
> E-mail: teun at
> Internet:
> resemble Martin’s definitions of genre (“a staged, goal-oriented 
> social process realised through register” (Martin, 1984), “social 
> purposes achieved by language use” (Ventola 1995:7) or “interactional 
> processes that unfold in recognizable stages” (Ventola 1995:8). Both 
> positions relate to a social and functional conception of language use 
> in context and typical configurations of language options associated 
> with typical contexts, although they both lack, for instance, 
> anthropological and cognitive parameters. In fact, both positions 
> provide similar examples of what a register or genre is and both 
> remind of Bakhtin’s work, although Bakhtin is more clearly adopted as 
> a reference figure in Martin’s papers. The difference lies somewhere else.

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