LINGUIST List 11.145

Mon Jan 24 2000

Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Andrea Rocci, Disc: functionalism & formalism
  2. Phil Gaines, Re: 11.129, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Message 1: Disc: functionalism & formalism

Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2000 00:49:13 +0100
From: Andrea Rocci <>
Subject: Disc: functionalism & formalism

Dear linguists,

I would like to add a few remarks to the functionalism-formalism
discussion started by A. Carnie's review of F. Newmeyer's book. I have
the impression that one can use the labels "formalism" and
"functionalism" meaning very different things and I would like to
stimulate discussion on this point. I do not claim a specialist's
knowledge for most of the questions I will touch in the following
lines and I will certainly learn much from your reactions.

I haven't read the book yet, but, from the discussion, I gather that
the formalism vs functionalism story at issue is the American (and
especially post-linguistic wars) one, with people like Bolinger,
Givon, Bybee, Langacker and Lakoff on the functionalist camp. My
first education as a linguist - not long ago- was that of an European
functionalism of sorts, and I have the impression that whole debate
might look rather differently from the perspective of an European,
Prague derived, notion of functionalism.

Let us begin with the issue of formalization. In his review Carnie
mentioned Newmeyer remarks on constraint based (HPSG, LFG) and
categorial grammars: both Newmeyer and Carnie were amazed that these
theories, which they see as the most formalist of formalist theories
are at the same time the ones that many functionalists consider closer
to their concerns.

In fact many ( especially American) functionalist tend to rely on
rather informal modes of description and sometimes do so for
theoretical reasons, but it is not necessarily so for many people in
Eastern and Western Europe who worked and still work in the broad
Praguean tradition. Starting from the phonology of the thirties, this
tradition produced a certain number of formally oriented theories.
For instance the work done in Prague by Sgall and its associates, the
applicational grammars of S.K. Shaumyan or the Meaning <=> Text models
of Igor Mel'chuk are formalized and yet can be said functional.

It has been already pointed out in the discussion that it is not the
use of formal machinery that defines a formalist stance as opposed to
a functionalist one and that there is a different between "formalist
methodology" and "formalist theory". I would like to suggest that what
tells functionalist from formalist, at least in this perspective, are
more the questions that are deemed central in the linguist's work than
the particular machinery employed. Prague School was born around the
idea of language as a "system of expressive means which are
appropriate to an end", that is primarily as a tool for
communication. The central explicandum of linguistic theory, in this
perspective, is linguistic communication. So, a very formalized theory
such as the one of Shaumyan adopts a functionalist stance when he
justifies the choice of states of affairs and individuals as the
primitives of the semantic applicational calculus with the idea that
these are the minimal entities that are necessary for a semiotic
system in order to serve the ends of communication. To my - far from
perfect - understanding chomskyan linguistics never considered the
question of how linguistic communication works as central, or, at
least did not consider it the one to start with. It was at the
beginning language productivity and, at least from a certain moment,
the puzzle of language acquisition that took the role of principal

Now, to end where I started, if there is a thing that the
functionalists and the LFG or HPSG people have in common is a concern
for linguistic communication. As M. Kay put it, people with an
involvement in computational linguistics "have been captivated by the
notion of language as a tool than language as a body of knowledge".

These theories place particular emphasis on the compatibility of
grammars with performance data, moreover, their practitioners normally
have a substantial interest in semantics and pragmatics - which is
usually not the case for P&P students of syntax. This is, I think, at
least part of the story of the functionalists' liking for such models
of grammar.

Andrea Rocci
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Message 2: Re: 11.129, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2000 09:57:18 -0700
From: Phil Gaines <>
Subject: Re: 11.129, Disc: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

In LINGUIST 11.129 Patrick Ryan wrote:

>> (The rat that the cat that the dog bit chased ran.)
> <snip>
> What strange kind of English would consider the sentence in the last example
> "grammatical"???
> Although a rewording like
> The rat that the cat bit that the dog chased ran.
> is ambiguous, stylistically attrocious, it is perfectly understandable.
> As the sentence was written above, I doubt that any speaker of English would
> acknowledge it as "English", let alone "grammatical:.
> Pat
> PATRICK C. RYAN | (501) 227-9947 * 9115 W. 34th

Welcome home, honey; we had quite a day here: First, the dog bit the cat,
then the cat chased the rat, and then, of course, the rat that the cat that
the dog bit chased ran.

Of course, the "rat" sentence takes some scrutiny to parse in written form.
Spoken with appropriate stress, pause, and intonation, it's a bit easier.
The beauty of such sentences, though, IS exactly their grammaticality. One
can easily (although it's not necessary) create a context in which the
sentence, although sounding funny, works just fine--as opposed, for example,
to Cat the on mat sat the. I would invite anyone to make that one work.
Yet when I ask my intro to linguistics students if they understand what it
means, they invariably say yes and explain it. In the 43 years since
Syntactic Structures, I think these kinds of observations still continue to
tell us important things about language and the mind.

Phil Gaines
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