Michael Halliday, linguist

Michael Halliday (Credit: Halliday Symposium)
Michael Halliday (Credit: Halliday Symposium)
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Michael Halliday, who has died at 93, was a Leeds native who became an internationally revered figure in the world of modern linguistics.

Having created the theory of language known as Systemic Functional Linguistics – the study of the relationship between language and its functions in social settings – he went on to found the Department of Linguistics at Sydney University in 1976.

In the words of his contemporary, Alan Jones, he “developed a comprehensive and coherent theory of language, social interaction and society that challenged most accepted ways of thinking about language up to his time”.

It was a talent that had become evident early on. His parents in Yorkshire had nurtured his fascination for language – his mother, Winifred, had studied French, and his father, Wilfred, was a dialect poet and an English teacher with a love for grammar and Elizabethan drama.

At 17, Halliday volunteered for the national services’ foreign language training course, and was selected to study Chinese on the strength of his success at being able to differentiate tones.

After 18 months’ training, he spent a year in India working with the Chinese Intelligence Unit on counter-intelligence. After the war, he was brought back to London to teach Chinese and took a degree course in the subject.

He lived for three years in China, before returning to take a PhD in Chinese linguistics at Cambridge.

But his breakthrough came when, after having taught languages for 13 years, he changed his specialisation to linguistics, and developed the theory that was to make his name familiar to generations of future students.

His system elaborated on the foundations laid by his British teacher, JR Firth, and the Prague School of early 20th century linguists.

Prof Ronald Carter, who published a collection of interviews with Halliday, noted that the phrases “major figure” and “international influence”, though commonly overblown in the academic world, scarcely did justice to his contribution. “They represent the richest of testimonies to his centrality, significance, impact and enduring influence as a linguist,” Prof Carter said.

It was a career that Sydney University chose to commemorate with the founding of the Halliday Medal, awarded annually to leading students in applied linguistics. As recently four years ago, Prof Halliday presented the award personally.

He retired in 1987, becoming emeritus professor at Sydney. He had previously held chairs at the Universities of London, Illinois, Essex and Chicago Circle.

His wife, Ruqaiya Hasan, died in 2015, and he is survived by his son, Neil, and an extended family.