The semiotic sense of context vs the material sense of context

The title of this paper derives from a selection of titles, some of which included the abbreviation ‘vs’ between two concepts, given to me to choose from as a title for a presentation at the inaugural Halliday and Hasan Forum held at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in December 2016.1 I chose the title “the semiotic sense of contexts vs the material sense of context” as it related most closely to my interest in the concept of context in Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Although the use of ‘vs’ (versus) is not used in SFL when describing these two perspectives on context, this seemed to be an interesting way of considering the two perspectives. We find the term ‘vs’ in a number of contexts: sports is perhaps one of the most common fields, and legal language abounds with the term vs – e.g. Rogers vs Smith.

However, there is another meaning of ‘versus’: “as compared to or as one of two choices; in contrast with” ( Thus, placing ‘vs’ between the two ‘senses’ of context suggests that these represent opposite context ‘poles’ , perhaps are even at odds with each other and that there is little likelihood of there being any overlap or middle ground between them. My presentation at the Forum included a broad sweep of the concept of context in SFL theory, taking in recent thinking on various aspects of the material and semiotic in the context of language in use. In this paper, however, I focus on the question of whether the material context and semiotic context are indeed separate phenomena, and on how they may relate to each other. In order to answer this two-part question, I conduct an analysis of a short text and demonstrate in a localized and detailed way how the material and the semiotic may converge and at times together depend on and reach into the cultural context in which the situation is embedded. Before conducting the analysis, I describe what could be considered the two different ‘senses’ of context from an SFL perspective.