Thursday, 14 April 2016

Why The Argument For Register And Genre As Context Strata Is Invalid

Martin (1992: 494-5):
Halliday's intrinsic theory of language function is thus projected onto context as an extrinsic theory of language use.  The realisation relationship between context and language is treated as a symbolic one, with language a metaphor for social reality at the same time as social reality is a metaphor for language. … 
Seen from the perspective of culture on the other hand, context can be alternatively interpreted as a system of social processes.  This for example is the perspective that underlies much of Bakhtin's writing on genre.  While acknowledging metafunctional diversity in terms strikingly similar to those developed by Halliday, Bakhtin places emphasis as well on the integration of these meanings as speech genres which evolve and differentiate themselves in different spheres of human activity.  This more "wholistic" perspective on text-type Bakhtin (1986 [1953]: 60) constructs as follows …
All the diverse areas of human activity involve the use of language.  Quite understandably, the nature of forms of this use are just as diverse as are the areas of human activity…Language is realised in the form of individual concrete utterances (oral and written) by participants in various areas of human activity.  The utterances reflect the specific conditions and goals of each such area not only through their content (thematic) and linguistic style, that is the selection of the lexical, phraseological, and grammatical resources of the language, but above all through their compositional structure.  All three of these aspects — thematic content, style, and compositional structure — are inseparably linked to the whole of the utterance and are equally determined by the specific nature of the particular sphere of communication.  Each separate utterance is individual, of course, but each sphere in which language is used develops its own relatively stable types of these utterances.  These may well be called speech genres.
The tension between these two perspectives will be resolved in this chapter by including in the interpretation of context two communication planes, genre (context of culture) and register (context of situation), with register functioning as the expression form of genre, at the same time as language functions as the expression form of register.  Register can then itself be organised with respect to field, tenor and mode, reflecting metafunctional diversity in its expression form, leaving genre to concentrate on the integration of meanings engendered by field, tenor and mode as systemically related social processes.

Blogger Comments:

[1] See previous post for a critique of this misunderstanding.

[2] This is misleading. Bakhtin's 'conditions and goals of areas of human activity' corresponds to Halliday's contextual dimensions of field and rhetorical mode.

[3] Like Bakhtin, Halliday also "places emphasis as well on the integration of these meanings as speech genres which evolve and differentiate themselves in different spheres of human activity".  The difference is one of terminology: Halliday calls speech genres text types (instance pole perspective), or registers (system pole perspective).

[4] Given the above, this claim is as valid as the use of the word "wholistic" for 'holistic'.

[5] Given the above, no tension between "these two perspectives" has been demonstrated.

[6] No explanation is provided as to how these proposals will resolve the undemonstrated tensions between "these two perspectives".


This constitutes Martin's argument for modelling register and genre as contextual strata. The argument is as follows:
  1. There is a tension between Halliday's and Bakhtin's perspectives on context;
  2. The tension will be resolved by modelling genre and register as two contextual strata.
The problems with argument are are as follows:
  1. There is no tension demonstrated between Halliday's and Bakhtin's perspectives on context;
  2. There is no argument as to how the proposed model will resolve the undemonstrated tension, it is merely asserted that it will;
  3. The proposed model is inconsistent with the meanings of stratification, context, genre and register.
The following post will deal with the theoretical inconsistencies created by the proposed model.