Semiotic Grammar

Semiotic Grammar

Semiotic Grammar

Semiotic Grammar

Synopsis

The label `semiotic grammar' captures a fundamental property of the grammars of human languages: not only is language a semiotic system in the familiar Saussurean sense, but its organizing system, its grammar, is also a semiotic system. This proposition, explicated in detail by William McGregor in this book, constitutes a new theory of grammar. Semiotic Grammar is `functional' rather than `formal' in its intellectual origins, approaches, and methods. It demonstrates, however, that neither a purely functional nor a purely formal account of language is adequate, given the centrality of the sign as the fundamental unit of grammatical analysis. The author distinguishes four types of grammatical signs: experiential, logical, interpersonal, and textural. The signifiers of these signs are syntagmatic relationships of the following types, respectively: constituency, dependency, conjugational (scopal) and linking (indexical, connective). McGregor illustrates and exemplifies the theory with data from a variety of languages including English, Acehnese, Polish, Finnish, Japanese, Chinese, and Mohawk; and from his pioneering research on Gooniyandi and Nyulnyul, two languages of the Kimberleys region of Western Australia.

Excerpt

When, as a graduate student at the University of Sydney in the early 1980s, I first came in contact with Michael Halliday, and attended courses in systemic functional grammar (SFG), I found many of his ideas exciting and refreshing. I was particularly taken by many of the insights in Halliday's A short introduction to functional grammar, which was being circulated in typescript form to students. I came to adopt many of these ideas, as well as the overall theoretical perspective of SFG, in my own research, and this has informed and enriched my thinking about language since.

SFG has its roots in the Firthian tradition of British linguistics. It emerged on the academic scene in the mid-1950s under the name 'scale-and-category grammar' (Halliday 1956)--that is, at about the same time as transformational generative grammar arose from the Bloomfieldian tradition of American linguistics. The historical development of the two theories has, however, been markedly different. The evolution of generative theory has been largely one of constant theoretical revision and replacement: arguments and intellectual machinery have been progressively refined so as to produce more and more refined analyses of increasing adequacy. However, with this concentration on improvement and refinement, the range of phenomena the theory aims to account for has remained relatively stable, at what is considered the core of grammar, autonomous syntax. Systemic theory has, by contrast, been subjected to little in the way of theoretical revision; the core concepts and theoretical architecture has remained relatively constant. True, new concepts have been added; however, this has not been accompanied by significant modifications to the existing theoretical machinery. Moreover, from the grammatical core it has over time shifted focus to successively wider concerns: text, discourse, ideology, society, and education. Thus, by the mid- 1980s few papers at the annual international conferences dealt with the grammatical core, the vast majority dealing with discourse, ideology, and applications to education (Walsh 1990). This wide scope of SFG, together with its abhorrence of autonomous syntax--indeed, autonomy anywhere in language--constitute, in my opinion, just two of the many attractions of the theory. But this has not come without a price. The price that SFG has paid has been that in the drive to cast the widest possible net the fundamentals have been lost sight of.

My attempts over the past dozen or so years at applying the theory to the description of other languages--in particular, Aboriginal languages of Australia (see McGregor (1990a) for a fullish SFG description of one such . . .

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