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Chomsky Transformational-Generative Linguistics and Halliday Systemic Functional Linguistics Essay

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Prior to unfold the compassion, personally, I am continuing to appreciate that generative and systemic functional grammars persist as “non-overlapping magisteria.” Since they are not dichotomous or contrary, it should be accepted that it’s helpful to simply define one in terms of what the other is not, if we want to safely conclude one is advantageous than the other, there must be a criteria or purpose relating to it.

Nevertheless, the primary function of language is communication, if for this purpose, we must doubt that which theory is more applicable when users actually produce or understand language.

It is widely believed that, in the kind of society we live in, context is an important element we have to take into consideration in language study for the moment we understand the human language. And thus we admit that systemic functional grammar is more developed from TG grammar and has more advantages in terms of helping us use language, understand meanings and analyze discourses.

In my observation, there are at least six differences between systemic functional grammar and TG grammar as follows.

1. TG grammar is the linguistic version that has been mostly influenced by and developed upon language form, whereas systemic functional grammar is the study of language through meaning, i.e. its function. Chomsky insisted that linguistics should go beyond merely describing syntactic structures, and aim to explain why language is structured in the way it is – which includes explaining why other kinds of structures are not found. TG grammar solves the long unsolved question of traditional grammar: the transformation process from active tense sentence to passive one. He thought that syntax is the center of linguistic study which consists of surface structure and deep structure. Chomsky also put forward two important concepts: competence and performance in his Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. The former refers to a language user’s underlying knowledge about the systems of rules, and the latter the actual use of language in concrete situations.

For TG grammar, linguist’s task is primarily to describe competence because performance is impossible without competence. But, to Halliday, it’s more significant to describe actual sentences with many functions not the idealized deep structure. He was concerned with the function of the sentence, what the writer’s purpose is in writing the sentence – in other words, with the meaning. Language serves three major functions as the metafunction: the ideational, the interpersonal and the textual functions. However, any full analysis of the sentence will inevitably need to take account of both the meaning and the form.

To summarize, Chomsky characterized form independently of meaning and function, while Halliday had good reasons to believe that meaning and function can help shape form. Both these approaches in linguistics have their advantages and disadvantages and they can interact with each other complementarily. In fact, both of them represent the two directions of linguistic studies at present: the vertical study of language in relation to thought and logic and the horizontal study of language with the social cultural framework. With both of them combined, we will have a full and complete view of language.

2. TG grammar is an abstract set of generalized rules, while systemic functional grammar concentrates on context-dependent usage. In the second half of the last century, there built up an immensely influential view of what the study of language should involve that insists that there is only one proper place to start – from a view of language as an abstract set of generalized rules detached from any particular context of use. This view, as we know today, is the TG grammar. TG grammars merely study the sentences that obey the rules of grammar. The meaning of sentence is manifested by its deep structure and the form of sentence by its surface structure. TG studies the relationship between the deep structure and the surface structure, the generation of grammatically correct sentences and transformational rules.

Halliday held a different opinion that he suggested the primary function of language is communicating meanings in particular contexts. Linguists should study the language actually in use, not in imaginary so-called language ideal structure. Moreover, language in use includes both the spoken language and written language; both the regular rules of grammar and the irregular rules that can be understood and accepted. He considered language is a social semiotic which consists of field, tenor and mode. Language as social semiotic must be studied in social context. Functionalists choose meaning as objective of linguistic studies, which is closely linked to the world, so they focus on the relation between language and the world, thought and culture.

3, TG grammar takes linguistics towards biology, while systemic functional grammar takes it towards sociology. Simply to illustrate this point of view, TG grammar believes that language is innate: SF grammar believes that it is learned. TG grammar believes that all human beings possess a grammatical program hardwired into the brain: SF grammar does not – he believes that grammar mirrors function is mastered through experience. TG grammar believes in ‘Universal Grammar’: SF grammar does not. TG grammar believes that language exists separately from experience: SF grammar believes that language only develops through experience of other people and the world around us. TG grammar is biology oriented: SF grammar is towards sociology. More specifically, TG grammar believes that we are born with the required mental capacities. Thus a rigorously formal approach to the description of language leads us towards neurology and genetics.

According to Chomsky, language is the preliminary state of language faculty existing in human mind and brain and a mental organ. It is a natural and innate object just like human heart or lung. Structuralists think children learn language through “stimulus and response”. Different from Chomsky’s views about the nature of language, Halliday considered language should be taken sociology and must be studied in social context. The systemic functional linguistics is a study of relevant features in the culture and society that form the context in which language is used, and which are at the same time constructed by the way in which language is used.

To sum up, both approaches, through form and meaning, ask essentially the same question about language: how can we explain why language has the main features that it does. But, whereas the form-based approach finds the answer in the way our brains are structured, the meaning-based approach finds it in the way our social context is structured. Fourthly, TG grammar is a kind of transformational generative grammar, while systemic functional grammar is based on a kind of reflexivity – “construe”. By a generative grammar, Chomsky simply means “a system of rules that in some explicit and well-defined way assigns structural descriptions to sentences”.

He believed that “every speaker of a language has mastered and internalized a generative grammar that expresses his knowledge of his language.” “Thus a generative grammar attempts to specify what the speaker actually knows, not what he may report about his knowledge”. Chomsky inclined that it is necessary to work out a grammar that, with a finite set of rules, can generate all the grammatical sentences in a language without generating a single non-grammatical sentence. One important implication of the functional view of language is that context and language are interdependent. On one hand, language could be seen as dependent on context, for example, when the speaker is in an informal context, he is likely to use informal language.

On the other hand, the use of informal language also contributes to creating the informal context. We use the term ‘construe’ to talk about this kind of reflexivity. Halliday paid more attention on the wordings than meanings for the reason that it is wordings that we can use to express the meanings. Fifthly, in systemic functional grammar, there is a special term ‘choice’, while TG grammar has no choice because it is viewed as a set of rules detached from language use. From the point of view of systemic functional grammar, if we want to examine what a piece of language is intended to (i.e. its function), we cannot avoid thinking in terms of choice. Systemic functional grammar sets out to investigate what the range of relevant choices are, both in the kinds of meanings and in the kinds of wordings; and to match these two sets of choices.

The language choice system provides a number of choices of wording and structure. The object of language choice is regarded as grammatical rules in functional linguistics. While studying the choices that are applied to meaning or function, Halliday established the systemic functional grammar, consisting of the ideational, the interpersonal and the textual functions. The last but not the least, TG grammar sets out to study language completely isolated from language use, focusing on propositional meaning, while systemic functional grammar applies to language use, emphasizing functional meaning.

TG grammar is almost exclusively interested in what we can call ‘propositional meaning’, that is, the ‘content’ of the sentence. If two sentences have exactly the propositional content and have no difference in surface form, they can be regarded as the same. Chomsky made a decision to study language isolated from the context so that the aim is to discover the rules which govern how constituents can be put together to form grammatically correct sentences, and to arrange these rules in a general way; therefore each sentence is analyzed in complete isolation, both from other sentences and from the situation in which it might be used.

To summarize, transformational-generative linguistics and systemic functional linguistics are two influential but quite contrasting approaches to linguistic study and reflect the two trends in linguistics development, providing an innovative value and important significance. TG grammar belongs to formalism which considers language and languages independently of other activities of communication, while systemic functional grammar inherits from functionalism which emphasizes that language are manifested in complex human activities closely linked with social interaction. They both play an important role in language teaching and learning.

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