LINGUIST List 11.105

Thu Jan 20 2000

Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Joseph Hilferty, Re: Review of Newmeyer

Message 1: Re: Review of Newmeyer

Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2000 12:06:00 +0100
From: Joseph Hilferty <>
Subject: Re: Review of Newmeyer

I would like to make a few comments about Andrew Carnie's review
of Newmeyer (LINGUIST 11.57). I was surprised to see that the
review does not even wince at, much less consider, statements like
the following:

This out of the way, what can be said of a review of a book that
does not even wince, as it were, at statements like the following:

 There is little reason to believe that the conveying of
 information is a central function of language to begin
 with. (p. 133)

Now, before I'm accused of quoting N out of context, I should say
that N goes on to back up this (rather remarkable) contention with
a passage taken from a functionalist:

 Language is used to establish, reinforce, maintain,
 and express social relationships rather than convey
 information. [...] (Van Valin 1981: 59, quoted on
 p. 133)

Whether such an idea comes from a Chomskyan or a functionalist,
I really don't see how the social aspects of language could take
anything away from its informational aspects: Shannon and Weaver
notwithstanding, don't establishing, reinforcing, maintaining,
and *expressing* social relationships count as *conveying*
information? Personally, I would think so. And if not, why not?

Of course, a reviewer has to be selective in the material he or
she wants to present, but can one really let *nonarguments* such
as the following pass without notice:

 Vargha-Khadem et al. (1995) is perhaps the most
 accessible publication that attempts to attribute the
 KE family members' dysphasia to nongrammatical factors.
 A telling criticism of this publication is that it
 ignores all work done by Myrna Gopnik and her
 associates that appeared after 1991. For discussion
 [...], see Gopnik and Goad (1997). (p. 93, n. 32)

The "ignored" work that N is referring to, as far as I can tell (and
I'll be happy to be corrected), is actually a series of unrefereed
working papers. But that is really not important. What if the tables
were turned? Would it be a reasonable criticism of N's _Language
Form and Language Function_ if someone were to write:

 Newmeyer (1998) is perhaps the most accessible
 publication that attempts to show why functionalism
 is misguided in most of its details. A telling
 criticism of this publication is that it ignores Esa
 Itkonen's (1996) "Concerning the Generative Paradigm."
 (_Journal of Pragmatics_ 25(9): 471-501.). For more
 discussion [...], see...

(I could make up a few more examples, but, being a junior linguist,
I don't want to get into any more trouble!)

Let me make a few more comments:

> Synopsis.
> He [= N] also points out the bizarre
> attitude among some functionalists to view certain varieties of formalist
> grammar (such as HPSG or Categorial Grammar) as being more congenial to
> functionalism than GB/minimalist approaches (presumably because such
> views share a non-transformational/unificational approach to language.)

How could this attitude be bizarre? If functionalists aren't attracted
to the proverbial "six-foot trees" of Chomskyan syntax, why can't they
feel more at home with surface-based theories?

> As far as I can tell, without
> time-machines or university degrees, infants only have access to what they
> hear spoken around them, which makes this approach psychologically
> incoherent.

This remark is true, but only as a straw man: I hardly think that
anyone holds the view that children know anything about diachrony.
But even if someone did entertain such a fantasy, it would be no
stranger than believing that children know in advance facets of
grammar that cannot be derived in some way from their intake of
the data.

> N shows that if you have a theory of markedness, then 
> there is no need for a theory of prototypicality [in syntax].

Is there really a Chomskyan theory of markedness? Or are there just
assertions that such-and-such an X is more marked than such-and-such
a Y? In any event, prototypicality is much better understood than
markedness is. Therefore, I don't see why markedness should take
precedence over prototypicality.

> On the surface, the claim that that the cognitive principles that govern
> other aspects of human behavior also govern language is extremely
> appealing. It allows linguists true status as participants in that
> interdisciplinary beast we call "Cognitive Science." Many cognitive
> grammarians (in particular Lakoff) make the claim that language is simply
> part of larger cognitive system. So called grammatical principles reflect
> larger cognitive abilities like memory or learning algorithms. This
> constitutes a putative denial of AUTOGRAM. N observes that many
> functionalists (including for example Givon), explicitly adopt some form of
> AUTOGRAM. N soundly trounces Lakoff (1991) for simply
> misrepresenting the "cognitive commitment" of Chomskyan linguists.
> Lakoff claims that generativists reject a view of linguistic theory situated
> within cognitive neuropsychology [sic; I assume Carnie means
> "cognitive psychology"].

Let's go back to the mid-1960s. Did generative grammar stop
recognizing the legitimacy of transformations when they were shown
to be psychologically implausible? No. Now, let's come forward to
the year 2000. Is the Chomskyan search for "perfection" (non-
redundancy in syntax) motivated by any findings in cognitive
psychology? As far as I know, no. (Sure, there's a lot that has
happened in-between, and I know that I'm going to get a spanking
for having said this. The fact of the matter, however, is that
most linguists live in a very isolated world. So, this last
comment shouldn't be taken as a criticism of just Chomskyan
generative grammar.)

Finally, I should say that I don't disagree with everything that
N says in _Language Form and Language Function_. Many of his
criticisms of functionalism are no doubt well-founded. I do find
it unfortunate, however, that the first contact that many linguists
will have with functionalism will be with this book. I really
don't see how it could stimulate many "formalists" to look any
further at the movement.

Joe Hilferty
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