Linguistics and English Language

Language in context seminar

POSTPONED until further notice.

Speaker: Tom Bartlett (University of Glasgow, School of Critical Studies)

Title: No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Towards a materialist account of context and social change

Abstract: In this talk I will bring together the architecture of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a theory which normally considers language as a social phenomenon to the relative neglect of the psychological, with concepts from systems theory (Kretzschmar 2015), evolutionary biolinguistics (Pennisi and Falzone 2016) and cultural evolution (Rogers 1989; Rendell et al. 2010; Pagel 2012). Combining these frameworks goes some way to providing a materialist account of the relationship between language and context as a metastable system – a system that is stable enough to be recognisable and usable, yet dynamic enough to cater to synchronic variation and stimulate diachronic change.

In the first part of the talk I will provide an outline of the architecture of SFL, with a focus on the indeterminate relationship between context and semantics - “the cracks where the light gets in” (Cohen 1992) and through which social innovation emerges. In the second part, I will draw on evolutionary theory to account for the contours of variation across contexts and the processes of change that typify a metastable system. And in the third part, I will discuss the implications of the theoretical framework in analysing data from nursing handover meetings.


  • Cohen, Leonard. 1992. Anthem.
  • Kretzschmar, W. A. 2015. Language and Complex Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pagel, Mark. 2012. Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation. London: Penguin.
  • Pennisi, Antonio and Alessandra Falzone. 2016. Darwinian Biolinguistics: Theory and History of a Naturalistic Philosophy of Language and Pragmatics. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  • Rogers, Alan R. 1989 Does biology constrain culture? American Anthropologist 90 (4), pp.819-831
  • Rendell, L. et al. 2010. Why copy others? Insights from the Social Learning Strategies Tournament Science 328, pp. 208-13

Further information

This is followed immediately (16:30 - 17:30) by a discussion and networking session for all staff and students in the 7th Floor Common Room, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD.


If you would like any further information about the Language in Context Seminar Series, or have any recommendations or feedback you’d like to give us, you are warmly invited to contact either Stephen McNulty or Sarah Van Eyndhoven at:

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Language in context group

Upcoming talks

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We hope to see you very soon!

Stephen McNulty

Sarah Van Eyndhoven

Co-ordinators of LinC

Mar 18 2020 -

Language in context seminar

2020-03-18: POSTPONED until further notice.

Room G.01, 50 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LH