Contextual Configuration

The field, tenor and mode of the context of situation function “as a point of entry to a situation as a set of possibilities” (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p.55). Within a culture, there are sets of certain recurring situations with the same values of field, tenor and mode being present, or “a specific set of values that realises field, tenor and mode” (p.56). This can be termed the Contextual Configuration, or CC. The example Hasan gives is of a service encounter – buying oranges – which has a clear recurring set of field, tenor and mode values.

Contextual Configuration is “not the statement of one specific situation, but rather…the expression of a type of situation” (p.102, their emphasis). So, the CC is not like a snapshot view of one situation, or the “material situational setting” (p.99) of the physical environment where the text takes place (although an individual text may be affected by it), but is instead instantiated through many instances of the same type, “a particular calibration of values frozen at a particular point in delicacy for a particular purpose” (p.105-6).

I think a good example is the US Supreme Court. In its history the Court has occupied a number of different buildings (and not just in Washington) and there have been a number of Justices, which is the material setting, yet the Contextual Configuration of ‘Supreme Court’ has essentially remained the same since its inception. It is made up of certain recurring sets of practices codified as texts that remain constant and are re-produced over time.


Mode of discourse

The third part of the context of situation is the mode of discourse. Mode refers to:

what part the language is playing, what it is that the participants are expecting the language to do for them in that situation: the symbolic organisation of the text, the status that it has, and its function in the context, including the channel (is it spoken or written or some combination of the two?) and also the rhetorical mode, what is being achieved by the text in terms of categories such as persuasive, expository, didactic, and the like.

The mode is generally divided into three main areas:

1. language role, or how important is the language in this context, is it ancilliary (not important) or is it constitutive (the central element in the context);

2. channel, which may be either phonic or graphic;

3. medium, which may be either written or spoken.

These three together generally form the mode of discourse. A politician’s speech, for example, would be constitutive (the language itself is the central focus), phonic (the politician is speaking) but written (it is generally prepared on paper).

Field of discourse

Here is a recipe for Lemon Risotto from

We know this is a recipe, and not say a research report, partly through the field of discourse.

Within the context of situation, field refers to:

what is happening, to the nature of the social action that is taking place: what is it that the participants are engaged in, in which language features as some essential component?

(Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p.12)

We can divide field into three areas:

1. experiential domain, or what the text is about. In the case of a recipe, it is about food and food preparation.

2. goal orientation, or what the text is for in terms of both short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal is obviously to make the recipe but the long-term goal is, I think, a little more complicated. Why are we making this dish? For example, as some research shows, there are cultural differences between Japanese and English that affect the long-term goals of food preparation. In Japan, cooking is, to a large degree, a serious matter and the goal is to reproduce the recipe exactly as shown, as opposed to the life-style/aspirational aspect of more Western cooking. I think also there are differences in the idea of the home as a private space, as in Japan, or a more public space for entertaining, as in English. This in turn affects the last area:

3. social activity, or what the text is doing. The activity of cooking in Japan is essentially a private or family activity. There is no real equivalent of the English-speaking or European idea of entertaining in your home or the dinner party. You can see this difference most clearly when looking at portion sizes. Googling ‘lemon risotto recipe’ or ‘レモン リゾット レシピ’ brings up recipes that in English, such as the one above, nearly always serve 4-6, or more, whereas the Japanese ones are for 1-2 people.

These three areas together make up the field of discourse, which is expressed through the experiential metafunction: there are specialised lexical items, such as broth, arborio and peel as well as material Processes, like simmer and stir. To a large degree, I think we also know that the above is a recipe (and the field of discourse is recognised by) external features such as lay-out, pictures, and the fact it says ‘recipe’.

Although I think there is a lot more to it and Hasan, in particular, has gone much further into the system of field in more detail, for the purposes of EFL I’ve found discussing just these three to be useful.


The Alphabet Song

Here, in Japan, there are two versions of the Alphabet Song. There’s the familiar one:

W-X-Y- and Z–,
Now I know my A,B,C,
Won’t you come and sing with me?

The version used in most Japanese schools, however, is:

Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.

Now I know my A,B,C,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.)

This got me wondering what exactly the function of the ABC song actually is. You might think that it is obviously to teach children the alphabet but I’m not sure this is the case. If it were, then the Japanese version is much clearer and does perform, and is designed to perform, this function. Yet the original version is quite different. I personally think that the role of teaching the alphabet for the original version is, in fact, secondary. I think the primary function of the ABC song, and similar nursery rhymes, is to teach fundamental concepts of how a text is constructed – it provides a bridge between the spoken and written worlds.

Firstly the original version rhymes. Each line ends with a lengthened /i:/ sound. Textually, this introduces the concept of rhyme as a resource for cohesion across a text. Secondly, it introduces the concept of rhythm, in this case a regular trochaic (strong + weak) pattern, introducing rhythm as a resource for cohesion within a text. These two together provide some idea of generic coherence – they hold it together as a text and we can recognise it as such.

The second part of the song provides a link between the stratum of Expression and that of Content. Both the rhythm and the rhyme are the same yet it is now mapped onto the lexico-grammar. This demonstrates formally the interaction between the two stratum and how lexico-grammar is realised through Expression. Semantically it also introduces a basic clause relation of statement + suggestion (in the form of Now that…Why don’t...).

I think then that the ABC song does, in fact, do more than just teach the alphabet. It introduces the fundamental concepts of texture and textuality and the operation of the three stratum of Expression, Content and Context. The importance of songs and nursery rhymes is also well-recognised in L1 acquisition (see Guardian) and it would be interesting to see any effects on L2 acquisition. The Japanese version of the ABC song, however, is quite different.