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The term metafunction originates in systemic functional linguistics and is considered to be a property of all languages. Systemic functional linguistics is functional and semantic rather than formal and syntactic in its orientation. As a functional linguistic theory, it claims that both the emergence of grammar and the particular forms that grammars take should be explained “in terms of the functions that language evolved to serve”. While languages vary in how and what they do, and what humans do with them in the contexts of human cultural practice, all languages are considered to be shaped and organised in relation to three functions, or metafunctions. Michael Halliday, the founder of systemic functional linguistics, calls these three functions the ideational, interpersonal, and textual. The ideational function is further divided into the experiential and logical.

Metafunctions are systemic clusters; that is, they are groups of semantic systems that make meanings of a related kind. The three metafunctions are mapped onto the structure of the clause. For this reason, systemic linguists analyse a clause from three perspectives. Halliday argues that the concept of metafunction is one of a small set of principles that are necessary to explain how language works; this concept of function in language is necessary to explain the organisation of the semantic system of language. Function is considered to be "a fundamental property of language itself".

According to Ruqaiya Hasan, the metafunctions in SFL "are not hierarchised; they have equal status, and each is manifested in every act of language use: in fact, an important task for grammatics is to describe how the three metafunctions are woven together into the same linguistic unit". Hasan argues that this is one way in which Halliday's account of the functions of language is different from that of Karl Bühler, for example, for whom functions of language are hierarchically ordered, with the referential function the most important of all. For Buhler, the functions were considered to operate one at a time. In SFL, the metafunctions operate simultaneously, and any utterance is a harmony of choices across all three functions.

The ideational function is language concerned with building and maintaining a theory of experience. It includes the experiential function and the logical function.

The experiential function refers to the grammatical choices that enable speakers to make meanings about the world around us and inside us:

"Most obviously, perhaps, when we watch small children interacting with the objects around them we can see that they are using language to construe a theoretical model of their experience. This is language in the experiential function; the patterns of meaning are installed in the brain and continue to expand on a vast scale as each child, in cahoots with all those around, builds up, renovates and keeps in good repair the semiotic “reality” that provides the framework of day-to-day existency and is manifested in every moment of discourse, spoken or listened to. We should stress, I think, that the grammar is not merely annotating experience; it is construing experience."
"range all the way from the rapidly changing micoencounters of daily life – most centrally, semiotic encounters where we set up and maintain complex patterns of dialogue – to the more permanent institutionalized relationships that collectively constitute the social bond."


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