LINGUIST List 11.109

Fri Jan 21 2000

Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Marc Hamann, Disc: Review Newmeyer

Message 1: Disc: Review Newmeyer

Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2000 11:17:54 -0500
From: Marc Hamann <>
Subject: Disc: Review Newmeyer

This is a response to Andrew Carnie's (AC hereafter) review of
Newmeyer's Language Form and Language Function, (LINGUIST 11.57).

Though I have not yet read the book in question, AC's meta-commentary
made many claims and observations which merit a response.

AC uses an engaging anecdote to illustrate the crux of what he has learned
from Newmeyer's book: that linguist's of different theoretical
perspectives should really listen to one another and try to understand
what issues fuel those perspectives. I'm not sure that he has taken his
own advice though, since his understanding of functionalism seems to be
that wherever functionalists have a legitimate concern, it is one which is
shared and better handled within the Chomsky School of Linguistics (of
whichever flavour) and otherwise it is misguided or confused. This doesn't
really fit within my definition of "understanding the functionalist
perspective", though others may disagree.

I can't speak for functionalism, but a key concern for me is the
empirical vagueness which surrounds the notion of grammaticality
judgements as a measure of competence. The major problem is that there
are sentences which native speakers will judge unacceptable despite
being able to understand them perfectly well (a trivial example is the
double negative "I don't got nothing left."), while other sentences
which ought to be "grammatical" sound very strange if not
unintelligible (The rat that the cat that the dog bit chased ran.) I
believe that a functionalist would be more interested in the fact that
the former works and the latter doesn't rather than shunting the
examples aside a "performance issues" and focusing on an idealized
competence model. This is I think where the real divergence happens
between the Chomsky School and a more functionalist one.

AC expresses amazement that GPSG, HPSG and Categorial Grammar are more
sympathetic to functionalism than is the Chomsky School, since he sees
the former as being more formalist in many ways. I think here we must
make a distinction between formalist methodology and formalist
theory. Though GPSG, HPSG and CG are all much more rigorous and
mathematically well-defined than any of the Chomsky School theories,
at heart they are all using this formal methodology to MODEL language
as a system of effectively communicating meaning and not proposing
that the systems they are building are a real representation of some
UG or other formal system in the heads of speakers divorced from the
practical realities of performance.

I hope this clarifies some of the issues that underlie at least one
functionalist-sympathetic position, and adds to the collegial dialogue
between different theoretical perspectives which both Andrew and I so
warmly endorse.

Marc Hamann
Toronto, ON

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