LINGUIST List 10.220

Thu Feb 11 1999

Sum: Prague School Influence on Syntax

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Frederick Newmeyer, Prague School influence

Message 1: Prague School influence

Date: Wed, 10 Feb 1999 19:48:47 -0800 (PST)
From: Frederick Newmeyer <>
Subject: Prague School influence

A few weeks ago, on this list and on one other, I posted a query about the
influence of the Prague School on current North American and Western
European work in syntax. I would like to thank the following, who gave me
very helpful replies: Machtelt Bolkestein, John Connolly, Geert Craps,
Deborah DuBartell, Tom Givon, Frank Gladney, Eva Hajicova, Paul Hopper,
Dick Hudson, John Mackin, Salvador Pons Borderia, Petr Sgall, Sanna-Kaisa
Tanskanen, Jess Tauber, Yishai Tobin, Marina Yaguello, Fumiko Yoshikawa,
and several individuals who asked me not to cite them by name. 

All respondents agreed that several current schools of syntactic analysis
that originated in Western Europe owe a great debt to pre-war work in
Prague. These include Dik's 'Functional Grammar', Halliday's 'Systemic
Functional Grammar', and Alarcos Llorach's 'Funcionalismo'. I am told that
these approaches are quite explicit about their debt to Prague, from which
they derive an integrated structural-functional approach to syntax.

As far the debt of generative grammar is concerned, all agree that any use
of feature notation is ultimately a Praguean influence. Dependency-based
generative approaches appear to derive from Prague and, in fact, Charles
Fillmore in 'The Case for Case' cites Lucien Tesniere, a member of the
Prague School, for the idea of 'sequence-free representations'. It was
suggested that the approach within generative semantics to topic and focus
derived from Halliday, and hence ultimately from the Prague School. And
there were suggestions that the work on these issues by, say, Michael
Rochemont (within formal syntax) and Barbara Partee (within formal
semantics) are generative reinterpretations of Prague School-originated
generalizations. Partee is also reported to be writing a joint book with
two Prague linguists.

However, there was wild disagreement among the respondents on the degree
to which mainstream North American functionalism (and the similar German
functionalism represented by linguists such as Haspelmath, Heine, and
Lehmann) is indebted to Praguean work. The opinions I received ranged from
'deeply indebted' to 'no debt whatsoever'. Those who took the former
position pointed to the centrality of Prague-originated notions like
'functional sentence perspective' and 'communicative dynamism' in American
functionalism (even if these terms are not generally used) and suggested
linguists like Bolinger, Chafe and Greenberg as being instrumental in
passing Prague School conceptions on to them. Those who took the latter
position say that the 'discovery' of Prague work was post hoc and that
'foundational differences' exist between Prague School functionalism and
US functionalism. Prague School work was described as being, at one and
the same time, 'too structural' and 'not structural enough'. Too
structural in the sense that American functionalists have tended to reject
the Saussurean idea (adopted by Prague) that a grammar is a system 'ou
tout se tient'. Not structural enough in the sense that the Prague School
has tended to advocate a dependency-based analysis, and therefore, unlike
much of US functionalism, does not formulate generalizations involving
syntactic constituent structure and the structural relationships based on
that. (IMPORTANT NOTE: I am summarizing here, not editorializing!)

I realize that neither 'the Prague School' nor 'American functionalism'
are homogeneous entities, so conflicting responses might well be drawing
on the work of different scholars within these schools carried out at
different times. Still, since the respondents did not generally qualify
their answers by citing persons and times, I have not done so in this

Fritz Newmeyer
University of Washington
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