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Margaret Berry

13 November 2020

A tribute to a wonderful scholar and great friend, we will miss you.

Margaret Berry

Margaret Berry, through her work we are left with an important intellectual legacy

In 2018, we held a workshop at Nottingham University in honour of Margaret Berry. It was a vibrant and engaging 2-day workshop and a very fitting exploration of the important foundation Margaret laid for us.

Gail Forey, Margaret Berry and Peter Stockwell

At this workshop which we presented to her the special issue which Kristin Davidse, Miriam Taverniers edited in her honour. What follows is the Introduction from that special issue. This introduction outlines the significant contribution Margaret has made to the SFL community not only through her scholarship but also as an amazing mentor and the very fabric of our community.

Image of three women: Margaret Berry, Kristin Davidse, Miriam Taverniers

This thematic issue is both a tribute to Margaret Berry, offered to her on the occasion of her 80th birthday, and the 25th anniversary issue of Functions of Language. The two facets of this issue are inextricably linked. Margaret Berry had long recognized the need for appropriate publication forums dedicated to functional linguistics, for which she tirelessly took initiatives from the 1970s to the early 1990s. This paved the way for the start of Functions of Language in 1994 because the earlier Nottingham publication forums had shown the need and viability for such a venture. There was also a very direct link. Dirk Noël, a student of Margaret’s to whom she had entrusted the editing of the Nottingham-based Occasional Papers in Systemic Linguistics, was the prime mover in the initiative to gather up support from functional linguists for a high-quality commercial journal in which they would be able to define their own research programme. It is, therefore, very appropriate that we can combine the celebration of Margaret Berry’s career and of the first 25 years of Functions of Language.

In the first part of this introduction we will salute Margaret for her remarkable achievements as researcher, teacher, supervisor, convener of workshops and editor. A researcher pur sang, Margaret has in all her other academic roles made very many good things happen. She has always steered clear of personal acclaim and has focused in every venture on the (joint) work and the people involved. In the second part of the introduction we will look back at the events in the functional linguistics community that shaped the emergence of Functions of Language and that set it on the path on which functional linguists continue to develop their own theoretical, descriptive and methodological concerns in interaction with the changing general linguistic scene.

Margaret Berry went to University of London, Bedford College in 1956 to read English with the intention of becoming a secondary school teacher of English. In her first term, J.R. Firth was giving a series of lectures as part of the intercollegiate lectures. These lectures captured her fascination and she and a group of friends were dedicated attendees, so much so that they began calling themselves “The Firthians”, since they continued attending even after most of their contemporaries had dropped out. As Margaret started her research, her supervisor, Phyllis Hodgson, gave her a copy of Halliday’s (1959) Chinese Secret History of the Mongols and said, “This young man seems to know what he’s doing”. At the same time, another Bedford lecturer, Vivian Salmon, gave her a copy of Chomsky’s (1957) Syntactic Structures. The rest, as they say, is history. However, Margaret’s story is fascinating and it is certainly worth noting that getting a position as a linguist, indeed as a female linguist, was far from easy in those days. Nottingham University wanted a medievalist and that was the area Margaret was working on at the time as her research concerned Middle English poems. However, the Vice-Chancellor was keen to develop what was called ‘Descriptive Linguistics’. Margaret was the perfect match, thanks to being a Firthian and the training and support she received from the Bedford staff. Her early years at Nottingham University centred around teaching Old English, Middle English and History of the English Language, but, encouraged by her then Head of Department, Jim Kinsley, she moved over to Modern English Language and Linguistics. Shortly after taking up her position at Nottingham University, Margaret met John Sinclair who renewed her interest in Halliday’s work and who advised her to join the newly-formed Linguistics Association, later to become the LAGB. According to Margaret, the LA/LAGB was very Halliday-oriented in those early establishing years but was later taken over by the more popular Chomsky-oriented members. Margaret retired from Nottingham University in 1998.

At the core of all her academic achievements, there is Margaret, the accountable researcher. For Margaret, any type of linguistics is an empirical science, but the formulation of research questions and the argumentation and methodology to address them spring from the theoretical framework that one espouses. Like all functional linguists, she is interested in the external motivations, social and cognitive, of the internal organization of language. In opting for systemic functional linguistics, she commits to a meaning-centred, rather than form-centred, line of inquiry, to which the text-context relation is central (Berry 1976). Margaret’s focus on text linguistics, with “its concern for text types and their relations to producers, receivers and settings”, is motivated for her by the requirement that it be relevant and useful to users of language such as “teachers and professionals in business and industry” (Berry 1976: 6).

Given the importance Margaret attributes to linguistic theory, it is not surprising that the first publications with which she made her mark were An Introduction to Systemic Linguistics: I Structures and systems (Berry 1975) and An Introduction to Systemic Linguistics: II Levels and links (Berry 1977). It was “the first comprehensive theoretical treatment” (Huddleston 1977: 190) of systemic-functional linguistics theory “for students in English departments of universities and colleges of education” setting out “each of the most fundamental concepts of systemic linguistics, giving an explanation of each concept and discussing passages of English in relation to the concept” (Berry 1975: ix). “I make no claim to originality”, Margaret (Berry 1975: ix) noted: “The ideas expressed are almost all those of other people, notably Professor J.R. Firth, Professor M.A.K. Halliday and Professor J. McH. Sinclair”. After making the ever-valid point that “A linguist’s views on what language is and how language works influence the way in which he describes particular languages” (Berry 1975: 3), she stressed the importance and benefits of theoretical diversity. “Newcomers to linguistics sometimes consider it a weakness of the subject that there are different schools of linguistics … Controversy is always a healthy sign. Language is so complex that no one approach can cover all its aspects” (Berry 1975: 12).

Margaret then turned her attention to a number of descriptive topics, the main ones being exchange structure (Berry 1980, 1981a, 1981b, 1981c, 2015) and theme (Berry 1995, 1996, 2013). Her sense of rigour and scientific method in language descriptions, as well as her accountability to text analysts, is reflected in the following quote.

Since the kind of exercise in which I have been engaging in this paper is often misunderstood by coders of texts, I will emphasise that when one proposes rules one is not saying that all the relevant stretches of texts must obey these rules or be consigned to the waste-paper basket. One is simply providing an idealised norm with which stretches of naturally occurring texts can be compared. Without such an idealised norm for the purposes of comparison, it is, in fact, very difficult to say anything interesting about naturally occurring texts. (Berry 1981c: 61)

In a flurry of publications in 1979-1981, she developed her personal model of exchange structure, which takes from the Birmingham School of Discourse the units of exchange, move and act. She mapped out the structural potential for the exchange of knowledge and action, which she elaborates into three layers corresponding to Halliday’s metafunctions. The choice of initial move predicts specific discourse consequences for the following acts in a way that transcends mere adjacency. Even though this work has had strong impact already, many of its promising aspects remain to be discovered, thought through, and further developed. It is heartening that Margaret herself has recently taken up this thread of her research again. She has also focused on theme and rheme (e.g. Berry 1995, 1996, 2013), looking at the micro-choices language users make to distribute the information in individual clauses, and how this affects success in written and spoken communication.

As a research-driven teacher, Margaret has had a profound impact on her students at all levels. To her, teaching is not a matter of unilaterally imparting knowledge, but of teacher and students together formulating questions and problems and looking for ways to address them. This emerges nicely from a footnote in which Margaret offers “Thanks … to those of my BA and MA students who have discussed Theme with me and who have carried out project work in this area” (Berry 1996: 1). Practising the Socratic method of cooperative argumentative dialogue, Margaret stimulated the completion of the doctorates, often published as monographs, of a host of doctoral students, including Butler (1982) The directive function of the English modals; Hillier (1990) The language of spontaneous interaction between children ages 7-12: Instigating action; Gibson (1992) Towards a discourse theory of abstracts and abstracting; Almein O’Neal (1994) Narrative structure in the writing of primary school children in the British Virgin Islands and Parsons (1995) Measuring cohesion in English texts: The relationship between cohesion and coherence. In addition to these, Margaret also had a supervisory role in the work of Caroline Stainton, Roberta Dewa and Dirk Noël and many others.

Her mentoring extended beyond her official doctoral students to other up-and-coming researchers who were members of, or in other ways came into touch with, the Nottingham Linguistics Circle, which promoted lively and open debate about many subfields of linguistics. 1971 saw the launch of the Nottingham Linguistic Circular edited by Ronald Hartmann and Walter Nash, which appeared till 1985. Margaret was an active member of the advisory panel, and looking at the tables of contents, one finds a veritable A-list of authors, most functional but also some with a more formal background, including Chris Butler, David Butt, Deirdre Burton, Chris Candlin, Ronald Carter, Jennifer and Paul Coates, Grevelle Corbett, Donald Cruse, Ruqaiya Hasan, Richard Hudson, Michael Lumsden, Jim Martin, Cate Poynton, Geoffrey Pullum, John Sinclair, Michael Stubbs, Sandra Thompson, Eija Ventola and Katie Wales. From 1981 till 1993, Margaret was also on call as assistant editor of Network, a newsletter-type publication launched by Robin Fawcett, dedicated to “report on … work both theoretical and applied, … in the broad Firthian tradition”. Margaret took the initiative for two further Nottingham-based publication forums dedicated to systemic-functional linguistics in a broad sense: Occasional Papers in Systemic Linguistics, which appeared from 1987 to 1993, and the series Monographs in Systemic Linguistics, in which a number of PhDs were published, including, besides those of Margaret’s own PhD students listed above, Cloran (1994), Torr (1997), Plum (1998), Davidse (1998), and Ravelli (1999), all prefaced by introductions written by Margaret.

The culture of lively and variegated debate of the Nottingham Linguistics Circle was naturally extended by Margaret into the organization of a series of Systemic Workshops in the 1980s and early 1990s, which focused on specific topics and brought in linguists from diverse backgrounds with special expertise on these topics. The oldest editor of this thematic issue was fortunate to participate in the 1983 workshop on “The analysis of texts, spoken and written”, attended by West Coast Functionalists Sandra Thompson and William Mann, and the 1990 workshop on “Rheme”, at which Jan Firbas from the Prague School was a special guest. As indicated on the home page of the European Systemic Functional Linguistics Association, “The origin of the association lies in a series of meetings in SFL, originally held in Nottingham in the 1980s, organised by Margaret Berry. In1993 the meeting went regional”, rotating around Europe, as it still does today.

group photo of the Nottingham workshop 2018