LINGUIST List 11.112

Fri Jan 21 2000

Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Frederick Newmeyer, Reply to Hilferty on LFLF

Message 1: Reply to Hilferty on LFLF

Date: Thu, 20 Jan 2000 14:59:32 -0800 (PST)
From: Frederick Newmeyer <>
Subject: Reply to Hilferty on LFLF

I have some comments on Joe Hilferty's discussion of Andrew Carnie's
review of my 'Language Form and Language Function' (LFLF) in 
LINGUIST 11.105. It's ultra weird writing a negative reply to a negative 
reply to a positive review of a book of mine. I'll try to keep my remarks
short and to the point.

Hilferty 'winces' at the following passage from LFLF:

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

As he notes, I 'go on to back up this (rather remarkable) contention with
a passage taken from a functionalist', namely Robert Van Valin. But he
fails to note that Van Valin himself cites work by Bird & Shopen, Keenan &
Ochs, and Haviland to make his point. So at least some conversation
analysts and ethnographers of speaking share this wince-creating view.

Hilferty goes on to ask:

> don't establishing, reinforcing, maintaining,
> and *expressing* social relationships count as *conveying*
> information? Personally, I would think so. And if not, why not?

I see little to be gained by broadening the term 'information' to the
extent that all aspects of social meaning fall within its scope. In any
event, those who have argued that the primary function of language IS to
convey information have the narrower sense of 'information' in mind, so I
don't see how this expanded sense of 'information' is relevant to the
issue under discussion in that section of LFLF.

Hilferty next chides Carnie for letting '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). (LFLF, 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.

And I am happy to correct Hilferty. Two of the ignored papers are even
cited in LFLF: one appeared in Journal of Neurolinguistics and the other
in a volume edited by Yonata Levy.

Hilferty equates Vargha-Khadem et al.'s suppression of the Gopnik work
with my not citing a particular paper by Esa Itkonen:

> 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...

It is true that I did not cite the Itkonen paper, nor hundreds of other
papers that bear on questions of form and function in language. But, no,
it would not be reasonable criticism. The Itkonen paper does nothing more
than reiterate criticisms that he and others have been making of
generative grammar for over 25 years. These have all been answered, though
perhaps not to Hilferty's satisfaction. The ignored Gopnik work, on the
other hand, presents new research results bearing on the question of
genetic dysphasia.

Finally, I find it a bizarre assessment of LFLF to say that it 'attempts
to show why functionalism is misguided in most of its details'. Quite the
contrary, LFLF takes a functionalist stance throughout. Fortunately, most
functionalist commentators have recognized this fact. For example, Martin
Haspelmath, in his forthcoming review of LFLF in Lingua, describes me as a
'functionalist Chomskyan'.

The rest of Hilferty's message is directed more to Andrew Carnie's
commentary on LFLF than on LFLF itself. It would therefore be
inappropriate for me to respond to it, though Andrew might wish to make a
few remarks in reply.

- fritz newmeyer
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