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Phonology in Systemic Functional Linguistics

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Language is a stratified system, and phonology belongs in the stratum of expression, where language physically manifests as phonic substance. It is the most unconscious of all the language systems, the one we usually refer to when we say “it is not what s/he said, but the way s/he said it”. Although the term “expression” might be misleading, the stratum of expression is an integral part of language. Sounds are not the expression of something else which exists independently from them; they are the form and essence of language and have a function in its meaning potential.

Intonation features constitute a set of resources available in speakers’ voices which, in many languages such as English or Spanish, signal textual and interpersonal meanings in discourse. Phonological features do not project specific meanings by themselves but rather situationally, at a certain stage in the discourse, and in combination with choices at other strata of the language system. Intonation patterns constitute a meaning-making prosody, which quite often accompanies and reinforces similar meanings realised in other strata. There are instances, however, in which the different grammars come into tension and the intonational choices become the carriers of interpersonal and textual meanings in discourse.

Phonology in Systemic Functional Linguistics provides an account of the intonation systems in SFL and their meaning-making functions in oral discourse. It proposes a way of interpreting phonological choices as integral to language in context and discourse meanings. In addition, the book puts SFL in dialogue with other approaches that also consider the role of phonology in discourse.

Published: Nov 1, 2025