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Language as Social Semiotic

M.A.K Halliday. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language

and Meaning. Baltimore, MD: University Park Press, 1978.

Language as Social Semiotic consists of a series of essays that extend Saussure's

observation that "Language is a social fact." For Halliday, "Language as social
semiotic" means "interpreting language within a sociocultural context, in which the
culture itself is interpreted in semiotic terms -- as an information system" (2). Language
consists of exchanges of meaning in various interpersonal contexts. Language, as
Halliday explains, "does not consist of sentences; it consists of text, or discourse" (2).
People in their everyday linguistic exchanges "act out the social structure, affirming
their own statuses and roles, establishing and transmitting the shared systems of value
and knowledge" (2). How these processes occur, for Halliday, can be seen in the work
of Basil Bernstein, who has demonstrated how a culture's semiotic systems vary in their
accessibility given different social groups, and in the work of William Labov, who has
demonstrated how variation in the linguistic system expresses variation in social status
and roles. Halliday specifies these variations in language use in his discussion of dialect
and register:

...dialect variation expresses the diversity of social structures (social hierarchies of all
kinds), while register variation expresses the diversity of social processes -- what we do
is affected by who we are...the division of labour is social....(2)
Language both expresses and actively symbolizes social structures and systems. This
"twofold function" of language empowers modes of meaning as diverse as "backyard
gossip to narrative fiction and epic poetry."

In the collection of essays that constitues Language as Social Semiotic, Halliday views
language from the outside rather than as an "elegant self-contained system." Halliday's
orientation departs from the view of language as formal logical relations and the
idealized speaker/sentence paradigm of Chomskyan linguistics. In a linguistics focused
on functional exchange of meaning "the conceptual framework is likely to be drawn
from rhetoric rather than from logic, and the grammar is likely to be a grammar of
choices, rather than of rules" (4).

The perspective developed in Language as Social Semiotic originates, as Halliday

explains, in the ethnographic-descriptive tradition in linguistics that includes Saussure,
Hyelmslev, Mathesius and the Prague school, Malinowski, Firth, Boas, Sapir, and

The contents of Language as Social Semiotic (by chapter) include:

1. The Sociolinguistic Perspective -- Language and Social Man: Part 1 and A

Social-Functional Approach to Language)
2. A Sociosemiotic Interpretation of Language -- Sociological Aspects of Semantic
Change; Social Dialects and Socialization; The Significance of Bernstein's Work
for Sociolinguistic Theory; and Lanugage as Social Semiotic
3. The Social Semantics of Text -- The Sociosemantic Nature of Discourse
4. Language and Social Structure -- Language in Urban Society; Antilanguages;
and An Interpretation of the Functional Relationship between Language and
Social Structure
5. Sociolinguistics and education -- Sociolinguistic Aspects of Mathematical
Education; Breakthrough to Literacy: Foreword to the American Edition; and
Language and Social Man: Part 2


Social Semiotics
1. Halliday’s ‘social semiotic’
Michael Halliday was already arguably Britain’s leading linguistic theorist when he coined
the term ‘language as social semiotic’ in 1978. This prestige gave his intervention great
impact, while at the same time it has kept the scope of that influence mainly within the
study of verbal language. For him ‘the formulation “language as social semiotic”
means… interpreting language within a socio-cultural context, in which the culture itself
is interpreted in semiotic terms’ (1978:2). Implicit here is a division between ‘language’,
understood as verbal language as studied by linguistics, and semiotics as the study of
other systems, which interact with verbal language to make up culture.

Halliday here simultaneously illustrates and contests a widespread understanding of

linguistics and semiotics as different branches of knowledge, as they often are
institutionally, but not conceptually, as in Saussure’s grand scheme, which places
linguistics within Semiotics (or Semiology, as he called it). Halliday’s position regarding
semiotics is ambiguous. In one interpretation of his project he points to an as-yet
undeveloped social semiotics to complete the work of his purely linguistic theory.
However, in a more positive interpretation he is opening the way to a more complex
relationship between linguistics and semiotics, in which insights into verbal codes, as
understood with a more adequate linguistics, will illuminate the study of all other codes.
In this sense his linguistic theory, framed to have a more adequate account of social
forces and contexts, is already a strand in a Social Semiotics which did not yet exist
when he wrote.

In spite of work by some of his followers (e.g., Martin and Rose 2005) the potential of
Halliday’s ideas on verbal language has still not been fully realised as part of a general
social semiotics, though some writers in Social Semiotics (e.g., Kress and Van Leeuwen)
have absorbed Halliday’s ideas so deeply that the full extent of his influence is
impossible to determine. The key premises of his linguistic theory, which work equally
well as general premises for Social Semiotics, are:

1. ‘Language is a social fact’ (1978:1) i.e., social relationships constitute language.

This is the case with all semiotic codes.
2. ‘We shall not come to understand the nature of language if we pursue only the
kinds of question about language that are formulated by linguists’ (1978:3) That is,
autonomous linguistics and semiotics alike are incapable of understanding the nature of
their object in disciplinary isolation.
3. ‘Language is as it is because of the functions it has evolved to serve in people’s
lives’ (1978:4). That is, a functional perspective is a key to the inseparable relationship
between semiotics and society, structure and function.
4. There are three functions, or ‘metafunctions’, of language (1978:112):
ideational (‘about something’); interpersonal (’doing something’) and textual (‘the
speaker’s text-forming potential’). The semiotic interpersonal and textual functions are
more obviously social, but are inseparable in semiotic practice from the interpersonal.
5. Language is constituted as ‘a discrete network of options’ (1978:113). The idea
of systems and networks (systems organised as networks) proposed by Halliday before
the ‘Network Society’ has applications to all aspects of Social Semiotics that are yet to
be fully explored.

2. The roots of Social Semiotics

Social Semiotics (1988) was undoubtedly influenced by Halliday’s ideas. One of the
authors, Gunther Kress, had studied with Halliday in the late 1960s. Bob Hodge and
Kress had first collaborated in a project primarily concerned with verbal language, called
‘Critical Linguistics’ (Hodge and Kress 1993(1979)). Semiotically this was limited to
verbal language, though like Halliday’s work it was already implicitly semiotic. It
synthesized a range of schools of linguistics, including warring divisions within
mainstream linguistics (Noam Chomsky and his followers, Halliday as a major
alternative, Benjamin Lee Whorf’s anthropological linguistics) and socio-linguistics
(William Labov, Basil Bernstein, R. Brown and A. Gilman, Dell Hymes, Harvey Sacks,
J.L. Austin). It also incorporated theorists of language from outside the discipline of
linguistics, such as Herbert Marcuse, Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. But crucially this
project framed the field with a critical account of society derived from Marx.

Social Semiotics built on Halliday’s five principles, and added distinctive emphases:

1. Semiotics is the minimal framework for the study of social meanings because
there are complex patterns of similarities and differences across different codes, and
because social meanings typically flow continually between different codes. Social
meanings cannot be tracked only in one code, even in verbal language as the dominant
one. The supposed dominance and autonomy of the verbal code is indeed an ideological
assumption whose taken-for-granted truth needs to be questioned by social semiotics.
2. The unitary object of social semiotics is constituted by a series of dialectics:
between Halliday’s interpersonal and ideational functions, between ‘text’ (‘a string of
messages which is ascribed a semiotic unity’ 1988:263) and ‘discourse’ (‘the social
process in which texts are embedded’ 1988:6); and more generally between ‘semiosis’
(‘the processes and effects of the production and reproduction, reception and circulation
of meaning in all forms’ 1988:261) and ‘mimesis’ (‘implying some version(s) of reality
as a possible referent’ 1988:262).
3. Power and solidarity are key dimensions of social structures and related
meanings, inseparably related in social semiotic practice.
4. Ideology, a key category in Marxism, is also central in social semiotic analysis,
but inflected by social semiotic principles to become the idea of the ideological complex.
Instead of the usual assumption that ideology is false consciousness, consistent with
itself but misrepresenting reality on behalf of ideologues, the minimal unit of meaning in
an ideological complex is its functional set of contradictions, motivated by the need for
ideologues to balance issues of power and solidarity for their relations with those they
are addressing.
5. The relationship with reality, treated as a problem for semiotic theory in most
forms of semiotics, is seen as constitutive in social semiotic practice. Reality-claims and
their contestation are woven into every semiotic act, and determine their social effect.
Systems, markers, traces and effects of ‘modality’ (‘the presumed relation of its mimetic
content to a world of referents’ 1988:264) are therefore central objects of interest for
social semiotic analysis.
6. Transformations occur everywhere in social semiosis, in texts and systems of
classification, as semiosic activity works over different versions of reality for many
reasons, all of which have social origins and meanings. The concept of transformations
(taken from Chomsky but transformed) is a crucial strategy for analysing the diachronic
dimension (time, change) which in its different scales is part of every social semiotic
fact, interacting inseparably with relations as they exist within any given time.
3. Social Semiotics and critical discourse analysis
‘Critical Discourse Analysis’ (often abbreviated to CDA) is often treated as distinct from
Social Semiotics, and not strictly part of semiotics. Yet there are good reasons both
conceptually and genealogically for seeing it as a branch of social semiotics. Both
developed at more or less the same time from Critical Linguistics. Norman Fairclough
first called his version of Critical Linguistics ‘Critical language studies’ (1989), then
‘Critical Discourse Analysis’ (1995), naming a field that has exploded over two decades,
describing a research tool that proved attractive to a wide range of researchers.

‘CDA’ owes much of its appeal to the role it gives to ‘discourse’. This term gained
currency through the work of Michel Foucault, perhaps the best known social theorist of
his time. However, Foucault was a grand theorist rather than a local analyst, a highly
intelligent commentator on a range of issues in the formation of modernity who did not
develop or need a method as such, capable of analysing instances of discourse. ‘CDA’
supplied the missing ingredient, a method of analysing linguistic texts to complement
Foucault’s theories and concepts.

There are many reasons why CDA ought to have situated itself in a semiotic framework.
Power, its major focus of interest, acts through verbal discourse, but not in words alone.
The limitation to verbal language ties the analytic hands of CDA. Of the main types of
discourse it studies, media discourse, policy discourse, and interactional discourse, only
policy is represented mainly in verbal discourse. Increasingly the media are multi-media
forms, and interactions have always occurred in multi-semiotic spaces. Ethnography, a
form of social semiotics without the name, drew on verbal discourse, collected through
interviews, alongside objects and practices viewed through the semiotic tactic of
‘participant observation’. Classic ethnography tended to obscure power-relations, the
forte of CDA (and also important for Social Semiotics), but the social semiotic practices
of ‘postmodern ethnography’ (Clifford and Marcus 1986) is good social semiotics, aware
of relations of power and solidarity in ethnography’s semiosic relationships.

The term ‘critical’ in both ‘Critical Linguistics’ and ‘CDA’ has an ambiguous legacy. On
the one hand it creates a hostile relationship of analysts to objects of analysis, since it
typically aims to expose the mechanisms of power in the semiotic transaction. In terms
of social semiotics this is an advance on classic social science research, which masks
this constitutive semiosic relationship under the ideology of ‘objectivity’. Yet semiosis is
rarely the pure exercise of power. Relationships of solidarity usually co-exist, including
kinds of ‘appreciative’ analysis. It is no accident that ‘critical’ has disappeared from the
name ‘Social Semiotics’.

Foucault’s own formulations of discourse seem to take for granted the pre-eminence of
verbal language, but they tend to have a capacious social semiotic space around them,
which can be seen in his practice also. For instance, one of his most influential ideas has
been his highly semiotic analysis of Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ (1977), an image portraying
the design for a gaol in which unseen warders view prisoners from a central tower. The
disciplinary practices he analyses, represented in architectural and other spatial
arrangements, are all realized through a multiplicity of sign systems, studied as part of
social semiotics.

Foucault’s concept of the ‘discursive regime’ (1972) is both a powerful contribution to

social semiotics, and in need of a social semiotic framework. A ‘discursive regime’ is an
abstract social system which specifies who can speak and what they can speak about, in
what circumstances. There are crucial social semiotic questions about who institutes
these regimes and how, and what lies outside their scope. The problematic status of
‘reality’ in discourse analysis, which seemingly cannot appeal to ‘reality’ outside of
discourse, can be resolved in a Social Semiotic framework, in which there are too many
alternative semiotic modes accessing the different objects of discourse for any
discursive regime to be fully successful as an instrument of control, and in which the
complex mechanisms by which ‘reality’ is specified and controlled (‘modality’ systems)
are themselves transparent and available to analysis.

Foucault was treated as a major influence, in effect a social semiotician, in Social

Semiotics, as well playing an even more key role in CDA, but with the social semiotic
links trimmed back. Given all these over-laps we can ask: does it matter whether
Foucault is understood as more a discourse analyst than a social semiotician, or whether
CDA, with all its many affinities with Social Semiotics and Critical Linguistics, is declared
to be part of social semiotics, or set off against it? Both Social Semiotics and CDA would
agree that it does matter, since the social mechanisms and effects of these processes of
definition are central objects of analysis in each.

4. Multimodality
Two theorists in particular have worked on the institutional interface between Social
Semiotics and CDA. Gunther Kress was a founding theorist of Social Semiotics, a
student of Halliday, able to synthesize the different branches of Social Semiotics, with
publications using Critical Linguistics that are evidently also CDA. Theo Van Leeuwen
was a semiotic Hallidayan who applied Halliday’s ideas to technical aspects of a number
of media, music, film and design, and continued to develop a Social Semiotic framework
(2005). Together they wrote on ‘Multimodal Discourse’ (2001) in a theory which had a
strong social semiotic base, yet used the term ‘discourse’.

Multimodality has two general strengths that have contributed to its popularity. Firstly it
has demonstrated the important role played by the semiotic characteristics of
communication even in one media, verbal discourse of print media. They showed the
systematic role played by layout and design, within a print text and between print and
graphic elements. They called these different semiotic channels ‘modes’, so that
‘multimodality’ signals the need for a semiotic analysis, not merely a mono-modal
analysis as in discourse analysis (and critical linguistics). Secondly, this view of media
texts as always multi-modal applies especially well to the new media, whose multimedia
forms, structures and processes severely challenge older mono-modal forms of analysis.

The complex situation of Multimodality as viewed through social semiotic lenses

illustrates many contradictory aspects of the case of social semiotics, and semiotics
itself. The term ‘multimodal discourse’ declares an affiliation with CDA, though its
practitioners typically do not set multimodality squarely within its scope. At the same
time it transformationally deletes ‘semiotics’ and ‘social semiotics’ from the title, and
downplays it in the description, even though the writers sufficiently declare that this is a
development from social semiotics. In their place the key term is ‘multimodality’, which
is incomprehensible in everyday discourse.

To begin to explain this we can adapt Foucault’s idea of a ‘discursive regime’, and
suppose that there is an abstract entity in current academic discourse which is making
‘semiotics’ and ‘social semiotics’ almost unspeakable. This can be spoken about, and
social semiotics taken seriously, in some privileged spaces, such as the present
Encyclopedia. Yet (a socio-semiotic claim there is no space to demonstrate here) even
this space has shrunken over the past few decades. This is a fact of discursive power,
not a judgement on the adequacy of semiotics. In the same time both ‘discourse’ and
‘critical’ have become more speakable, to become the dominant carrier of social
semiotics today. Yet sign systems have not simplified down to the single channel,
verbal, but the contrary. The entanglement of signs has become ever more complex and
pervasive, ever more inseparable from dominant social processes.

To cope with this situation any kind of exclusively verbal analysis is ever less capable of
being critical. Yet, for the time being, Social Semiotics withers, and CDA flourishes.
A proposition like this can be asserted within CDA. However, it can only be examined
within the framework, Social Semiotics, whose slow demise it deals with. Social
semiotics can describe the multi-semiotic terrain in which this process is taking place,
the effectivity of the many non-verbal codes, and the cost of their exclusion from the
field of study.

In all this it is important to hold out for the importance of the general project of social
semiotics, deploying the full range of semiotic insights, whether or not they are officially
part of a meta-discipline of semiotics. Social semiotics on this scale is so amorphous
and diverse it is almost impossible to capture in any agreed description or definition.
But like God, as Voltaire famously said, if it didn’t exist we would have to invent it.

Bob Hodge