Porter, Robertson & Systemic Networks

Those of you who have read Porter’s book on Verbal Aspect probably remember seeing his little chart delineating Verbal Aspect within the Systemic linguistic framework.


We see this picture in his monograph on page 90.

I have argued previously that his proposals about aspect* are significantly less revolutionary than we’ve been led to think (particularly HERE, but the rest of that series is relevant as well).

I’m also curious about how revolutionary his systemic system is as well; where the speaker has a choice between the perfective/non-perfective and if non-perfective, then a choice between imperfective and stative. Other than terminology (which is synonymous**), is this not identical to what Robertson says?

All verbs may be described as “punctiliar” (punktuell) and “non-punctiliar” (nicht-punktuell). But the “non-punctiliar” divides into the indefinite linear (durative) and the definite linear (completed or perfect) (Robertson, 823).

Translated into modern terminology, it says,

All verbs may be described as “perfective” and “non-perfective.” But the “non-perfective” divides into the indefinite linear (imperfective) and the definite linear (completed or perfect, i.e. stative)

Nothing new under the sun, eh?

*I’m not talking about his arguments about tense versus proximity. That’s a separate issue, though I don’t think he’s very revolutionary on that either.

**The only debatable point on this is how identical Robertson’s description of the Perfect parallels Porter’s. But generally, when Stative is used in Indo-European linguistics, it is equivocal to the Perfect.

6 thoughts on “Porter, Robertson & Systemic Networks

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  1. I rather doubt whether I’m competent to judge this, but I do have a strong suspicion that every feature of language must be one or the other of a pair of alternatives is a presupposition of Functional Linguistics, a presupposition which, however helpful it may be in some instances, imposes a straitjacket over some phenomena of language that it just may not fit very well.

  2. Carl, have you been talking to Steve Runge? I’ve had this conversation with him once or twice myself.

    As its been explained to me, Porter’s method assumes a completely symmetrical system, which works well when you have two of something, but will fall apart when you look at things like conjunctions. So when you say, “however helpful it may be in some instances, imposes a straitjacket over some phenomena of language that it just may not fit very well,” you’re exactly right

    But this specifically refers to Systemic Functional linguistics, not Functional linguistics as a whole, which is a larger umbrella of frameworks. Not all functional (or formal for that matter) frameworks assume this kind of symmetry.

  3. Ah … You see, Mike, my problem with what I’ve called the “Tower of Babel” of academic Linguistics: I cannot speak their languages — any one of them — correctly! And they are Legion!

  4. People have written complete dictionaries for terminological differences!

    The encouraging thing is that for the most part and in spite of all the different terminology, there is a huge amount of agreement in the greater linguistic world – greater than there is in NT. And I think that goes back to something you said to me earlier about NT scholars being stuck in too small of a corpus.

  5. Systemic Functional Linguistics nowhere says all distinctions are binary, in fact, Halliday always fought the Chomskian usage of binary distinctions. Systems (sets of mutually exclusive features) can have any number of features in them. System networks are also not just taxonomies, they allow parallel systems (orthogonal choices), and more complex phenomena will be defined as the combination of choices from distinct branches (e.g., a clause in English may select perfect, progressive and passive at the same time).

    As for conjunctions, these are messy in whatever formalism you work in.

  6. Dr. O’Donnell, Thank you for the clarification, though I suppose I wasn’t completely clear on my own meaning. I didn’t intend to imply that SFL was necessarily binary in its systems. I don’t view symmetry as necessarily binary. As I understand it, no SFL system is necessarily binary, but all must be symmetrical. I acknowledge that I could be wrong about that. My knowledge of SFL is limited. I’m much more familiar with Role and Reference Grammar and Lexical-Functional Grammar than I am with Systemics (Hallidayian or otherwise). This is merely the impression I got from Kwon’s The Word Order of the Gospel of Luke.

    Symmetry in markness goes back at least to Lyon’s Semantics, 1:305-11 (I think, though I don’t have the book handy to double check the page numbers).

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