genre and register

Tahir Wood twood at UWC.AC.ZA
Fri Jun 22 10:29:28 UTC 2007

I fully share these sentiments about SFL, whose appeal I have personally never understood. But coming back to the question, I am surpised that it seems so problematic. Register to me belongs with such terms such as 'code', 'variety', 'dialect', etc. As such it is mainly concerned with the linguistics of the sentence, or clause if you prefer. Genre to me has always been 'beyond the sentence' and belongs with such terms as 'text structure', 'discourse structure', or even 'text grammar' if you like. Of course they intersect in very complex and interesting ways, but how did they become conceptually confusable? 

>>> "Teun A. van Dijk" <teun at DISCOURSES.ORG> 06/22/07 12:03 PM >>>

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 A. van Dijk
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Dept. de Traducció i Filologia
Rambla 30
08002 Barcelona

E-mail: teun at 

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.

-------------- next part --------------
All Email originating from UWC is covered by disclaimer 

More information about the Critics-l mailing list