LINGUIST List 11.57

Sat Jan 15 2000

Review: Newmeyer: Language Form & Language Function

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Andrew Carnie at


  1. Andrew Carnie, Review of Newmeyer

Message 1: Review of Newmeyer

Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2000 20:49:43 -0500 (EST)
From: Andrew Carnie <>
Subject: Review of Newmeyer

[Moderator's note: Although this review is written by a moderator of the 
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not represent the opinion of the other LINGUIST moderators or official 
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Newmeyer, Frederick J. (1998) Language Form and Language Function. 
MIT Press. Cambridge MA. 428pg. 

Reviewed by Andrew Carnie, University of Arizona

	In late September of this year, I had occasion to attend our annual 
LINGUIST list meeting in Ann Arbor. After many hours of meetings about 
how we are going to organize next year's tasks, I -- along with the other 
moderators and some other colleagues -- went out for dinner at a fashionably 
expensive restaurant. As happens when a group of linguists get together, the 
topic of conversation quickly turned to matters of theory. After the main 
course was served and we had drunk far too much wine, one of my 
colleagues (who I will leave anonymous) took to his favorite game of 
provoking me alternately on politics and the nature of linguistic theory. We'd 
been talking about a project I've been working on the UG-driven properties 
of verb initial languages. My colleague, let's call him B, who is an avowed 
(historical-) functionalist, started with the jab that "you so-called 
syntacticians don't know what an empirical fact is. All you ever do is probe 
obscure and irrelevant 'acceptability' judgments that have nothing to do with 
how language is actually used." I growled my deepest growl and the 
subsequent debate went something like the following:

AC: "B, you're insane. That isn't at all what we do. Chomksyans are devoted 
to empirical arguments. The ideal set of data for linguistic theory includes 
both sentences heard in every day use AND information about our basic 
competence in language."

B: "Exactly, Andrew, your problem is you all are obsessed with this fictional 
'linguistic competence'. Functionalist theory is about real language."

AC: "So is generative grammar, in fact we don't limit ourselves the way you 
all do. And by the way, 'functionalist theory 'isn't a theory at all. A theory 
needs to make predictions. As far as I can tell, the 'predictions' made by 
functionalist aren't anything more than simple descriptive generalizations."

B: "What is so simple about descriptive generalizations anyway? [Waving a 
forkful of curried chicken provocatively close to my face] Your problem is 
that you people attempt to psychologize grammar, but then ignore all the 
results from psychology."

AC: " You are out of your mind [I banged the table, spilling some of his 
wine], are you completely ignoring all the work in language acquisition done 
by people like Crain and Pinker."

At this point, another colleague, the only diplomat among us, noticed the 
reaction of the waiters hovering nearby and the alarmed looks on the faces of 
our neighboring restaurant patrons. We were getting a bit loud. She piped in:

C: "Um, boys, perhaps we should talk about something a little less 
controversial, like Kosovo, or abortion?"

To which the two of us, shame-faced and cowed, busied ourselves with our 

	The above conversation really happened. Fritz Newmeyer starts out 
his book on the nature of the functionalist/formalist debate with a fictional, 
but very similar discussion between two graduate students at the LSA. 
Perhaps what both the fictional discussion and the real one highlight for us is 
the basic failure among linguists of different stripes to communicate with 
each other. I came away from my discussion with my colleague with the 
impression that we really hadn't understood what the other was saying. We 
were using the same terminology, but they didn't mean the same things to us, 
precisely because of our differing theoretical orientations. Newmeyer's book 
(henceforth N), has gone a long way towards helping me understand what 
the debate is about and why functionalists view things the way they do. In 
particular, it has helped me understand the importance of a lot of the results 
of functionalist approaches to linguistics, and better appreciate the work they 
do. In the first chapter, N claims that formalists need to take heed of the role 
that meaning(/function) plays in determining form. However, N has also 
strongly confirmed my belief that Chomskyan generative linguistics is on 
the right track, and that the functionalist criticisms of formalist approaches 
are either based on misunderstandings of what formalists are saying, or on 
simple factual errors. Through out the book, N points out generative (and 
other formalist approaches) are more often than not quite consistent with the 
assumptions made by functionalist linguists. He argues quite convincingly 
that the basic tenets of formalist grammar are not only conceptionally well-
founded, but are empirically justified as well. 
Although this book is a firm and resounding endorsement of formalist 
(or more accurately, generative) approaches, I think it bears the more 
important moral that we really need to not only talk at one another, but to 
*listen* to one another as well. 


	The first chapter of N is a lucid scorecards of who's who in linguistics. 
The first problem to be dealt with is the puzzle of what sets of assumptions 
identify one as either belonging to the functionalist or formalist camp: 
"One orientation sees as a central task for linguists characterizing the 
formal relationships among grammatical elements independently of any 
characterization of the semantic and pragmatic properties of those elements. 
The other orientation rejects that task on the grounds that the function of 
conveying meaning (in its broadest sense) has so affected grammatical form 
that it is senseless to compartmentalize. It is the former orientation, of 
course, that I have been referring to as 'formalist' and the latter as 
'functionalist'." (N:7)
Within these broad categories there is a wide range of variation in the 
precise sets of assumptions being made. N explores the range of theories that 
seem to fit the formalist camp (GB, Minimalism, HPSG/GPSG, LFG, and to 
some degree RG), and the relatively minor differences between them with 
respect to the formalist/functionalist debate. He 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.) I 
wasn't surprised to hear this about functionalists, but it continues to strike 
me as odd, because among the "formalist" approaches to grammar, 
proponents of HPSG/GPSG/CatG seem to me to be the most "formal" of all 
(see for example Pullum's (19XX) NLLT topic/comment on how fuzzy 
Chomskyan syntacticians have become.) If anything, despite its 
transformational nature, I think minimalism, especially in light of recent 
work on motivating transformations, is in fact the most functionalist of the 
formalist theories (more on this below in the Critical Evaluation section).
The spectrum of functionalist approaches seems to be much broader 
than that of formalist grammar. N adopts Croft's (1995) typology of 
functionalist theories. At one extreme, perhaps the view closest to 
formalism, is External Functionalism. This includes such theories as Role 
and Reference Grammar, Dik's Functional Grammar, Systemic Grammar, 
the Competition Model, Construction Grammar, and Cognitive Grammar. 
These approach, while rejecting the autonomy of syntax, maintain that there 
is a systematic (and often formalizable) grammatical system where semantic 
and pragmatic elements are linked to syntactic ones. 
The next class of functionalist theories includes the Emergent 
Grammar approach of Hopper (1987), and various unnamed "functional-
typological" approaches. Croft labels these as Integrative functionalist 
approaches. N observes that such approaches "deny the Saussurian dictum 
that it is meaningful to separate langue from parole and synchrony from 
diachrony" (N:16). In essence, the Integrative approaches deny that the 
cognitive system is self-contained, and that social and historical factors 
interact with it to an extremely high degree. I have to admit that I still don't 
understand this approach. Perhaps it is my MIT training showing through 
and blinding me to the obvious, but I simply fail to see how it is at all 
possible that a two-year old child has direct access to diachronic influences 
like OE word order or the great vowel shift. 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. While I don't understand their philosophical approach to 
grammar, I have a healthy respect for the descriptive empirical work that so-
called functional-typologists do. I have often made use of their grammars 
and their putative universals in my own work. As we will discuss below, N 
takes a slightly more cynical view of typological research.
 At the far end of the functionalist spectrum lies theories likes those 
developed by the 'Columbia School', and by work by Kalmar. Croft calls 
these Extreme Functionalists. As N observes, these theories are so extreme 
in their functionalism, that it is hard to imagine, even if you have 
functionalist bent, how they could possibly be correct. N states "Advocates 
of this approach believe that all of grammar can be derived from semantic 
and discourse factors � the only 'arbitrariness' in language exists in the 
lexicon." (N:17). There is so much empirical evidence that such a claim is 
false, N chooses not to bother arguing directly against them. For example, 
Hudson (1996) observes such examples as the arbitrary difference between 
'likely' and 'probable' with respect to raising constructions:

1) 	a.	He is likely to be late
	b. 	*He is probably to be late 	(N:28)

In the second chapter: The Boundaries of Grammar, N addresses the 
question of Autonomy in grammar. Chomsky and his followers have often 
been criticized for their adherence to three autonomy hypotheses (I have 
paraphrased N here):
1) The autonomy of syntax (AUTOSYN): there is a system of 
primitive non-semantic/discourse defined terms whose combination makes 
no reference to system external factors.
2) The autonomy of knowledge of language (AUTOKNOW): 
Knowledge of language (competence) is different from language use 
3) The autonomy of grammar as a cognitive system (AUTOGRAM): 
there is a cognitive system of language that is distinct from other cognitive 
N argues that all three are correct, and that to some extent, the criticisms laid 
at the door of such hypotheses are built on misunderstandings of their 
N again draws on the insights of Croft 1995, who observes there are 
three more primitive assumptions (or claims � depending upon who you are 
talking to) that underlie AUTOSYN. These are (i) Arbitrariness, (ii) 
systematicity, (iii) self-containedness. Of these really only self-
containedness and systematicity are controversial. 
Functionalists have long criticized Chomskyan grammar of ignoring 
the clear interactions between meaning and form. Ironically, these criticisms 
do not appear to be based in fact. As N observes, Chomsky has always 
advocated as the main task of linguists to be fleshing out the points of 
contact that exist between form and meaning. For example the theories of 
thematic roles, Jackendoff's conceptual structures, or Levin-style argument 
structures, are precisely the kinds of interactions where the meaning drives 
the form of a sentence. Most recently, in the minimalist program, differences 
between languages in terms of syntactic structure is thought to derive from 
purely lexical-semantic properties of those languages. It is also worth noting 
that, despite functionalist claims to the contrary, there is a long standing 
tradition in generative linguistics of the study between syntactic structure 
and semantic/pragmatic principles. For example, Diesing, Jelinek, Kroch, 
Prince, Heim and many others focus their research on precisely the 
interaction between syntactic and semantic/pragmatic form. Jelinek for 
example, has long argued that word order in Lummi Salish is a result 
between a mapping between the information structure of an utterance and 
the formal syntactic structure that underlies it. 
At least some formalist approaches then, are not purely self-contained. 
N claims that what *really* underlies the differences between functionalists 
and formalists on the question of AUTOSYN lies in the domain of 
systematicity. One believes in AUTOSYN if one believes that "the 
relationship between purely formally defined elements is so systematic that a 
grammar should accord a central place to formalizing the relationship among 
these elements without reference to their meanings or functions." 
 N goes on to defend this view with a variety of conceptual and 
empirical arguments. In particular, he discusses the role of intuitions, the 
fallacy of assuming that frequency of utterance type determines some kind 
of 'basic nature', and the confusion Givon rain upon the question by mixing 
up explananda and explanans. N points out the longstanding Chomskyan 
claim that "S speakers have some internal principles that lead to S 
judgments. Surely the study of such principles is logically prior to the study 
of how the structures resulting from the principles are actually put to work in 
the discourse" (N:43). In the interest of keeping this review to a reasonable 
length, I can't go through all the fascinating discussion in this section, I will 
however, summarize one of the empirical arguments that N raises in favor of 
AUTOSYN. He observes first that there is not necessarily a tight link 
between a grammatical construction and discourse function. For example, 
Subject/Aux inversion can be found with questions, requests, offers, and 

2) 	Can you take KLM from Seattle to Amsterdam
		Could you please pass the salt
		Can I help you
		Is syntax ever easy 	(based on N:49)

Within the realm of 'canonical' uses, Subject/Aux inversion is found in main 
questions (but not embedded ones), in wh-constructions, after preposed 
negative adverbs, with bare subjunctives, and after preposed so clauses:

	3)	Have you been working late
		What have you been eating
		Under no circumstances will I take a day off
		Had I known the dangers, I would have kept my distance.
		So tall is Mary, she can see into second story windows 
					(modified from N:47-48)

Note further that these are all tokens of the same phenomenon, as shown by 
the fact they are subject to the same idiosyncratic formal constraints, such as 
the fact that none may occur in embedded contexts

	4) 	*I asked had you been working late
		*I wondered what had you been eating
		*?I think that under no circumstances will I take a day off.
		*I think that had I known I the dangers S
		*I'm sure that so competent is Mary, she will get the promotion.

A semantic or pragmatic account of this uniform behavior is greatly 
challenged by the fact that there appears to be no uniform semantic 
properties that these constructions have in common. A formal approach, by 
contrast, while arbitrary, runs into no such difficulties. N raises similar 
arguments from Wh-constructions, and lexical government which also show 
a one-to-many link between form and function, thus providing 
straightforward support for AUTOSYN. Since we can't characterize the form 
in terms of the function, the form must be to some extent autonomous of the 
	Turning now to AUTOKNOW, the principle challenge to this 
hypothesis comes from the Emergent Grammar literature. Hopper (1987) 
describes the basic philosophy of this approach as "Language is, in other 
words, to be viewed as a kind of pastiche, pasted together in an improvised 
way out of ready-made elements." (Hopper 87:144, cited in N:59). N rejects 
Hopper's claim that parts-of-speech categories reflect prototypical discourse 
functions, rather than formal categories (see also the discussion of chapter 4 
below). He adapts an analogy from Jerrold Sadock and says "an emergent 
grammarian is like an anatomist who, realizing that birds can fly, loses all 
interest in the structure of their wings" (N:63-64). N discusses at length 
theories of discourse-grammar interactions based in formalist systems that 
are wholly consistent with the AUTOKNOW hypothesis. Following Prince, 
he observes that it is consistent to claim that there is a discourse component 
of the grammar, which itself is subject to the competence/performance 
distinction. N reviews the arguments from Historical change, creolization 
and L2 acquisition, and comes to the conclusion that none are inconsistent 
	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. N shows that what Lakoff says is simply 
wrong. N cites Chomsky (1975) here: "A grammar is a cognitive structure 
interacting with other systems of knowledge and belief". 
	N also deals with the question of arguments for the innateness of 
AUTOGRAM knowledge. In particular, he focuses on the questions of 
poverty of the stimulus. While this discussion is interesting, I think it is his 
basic conclusion that is the most telling. He observes that innateness is *not* 
an assumption underlying AUTOGRAM, but rather is a conclusion of 
generative grammar. AUTOGRAM can stand independently of one's beliefs 
about innateness. Finally, N reviews the literature on Specific Language 
Impairment (SLI), and shows how the existence of such a phenomenon is 
straightforward evidence in favor of AUTOGRAM.
	In chapter 3, N turns to the question of what constitutes an 
explanation in functionalist and formalist grammar. N distinguishes internal 
explanations (such as the case filter or other formal grammar-internal 
devices) to external explanations (such as iconicity, parsing, economy, 
innateness, discourse flow, prototypes, metaphor, "playfulness", and text 
frequency). At first blush, it may appear as if external explanations are the 
domain of functionalists, and internal explanations that of formalists. N 
concludes that this is too easy a classification. He shows that many 
functionalists assume internal explanations. More importantly, despite the 
blatant misrepresentations (or misunderstandings) of some leading 
functionalists, generative grammar is open to external explanations as well. 
In particular, it is open to such external properties in explaining the historical 
(or evolutionary) origins of certain constraints and processes in the grammar. 
For example, he notes that Chomsky (1973) suggested that the origins of the 
bounding and binding theory may lie in a perceptual strategy that links 
predicates to their arguments. Although N only mentions it briefly, more 
recent Minimalist approaches to grammar are almost entirely motivated by 
external factors such as economy, and the pressures put on the grammar by 
the phonological and semantic components. N's book was published before 
another important book brought out by MIT press, Juan Uriagereka's (1999) 
_Rhyme and Reason_ . Uriagereka's work on the reason why such external 
pressures occurs bears greatly on these questions and ties in nicely with N's 
Chapter 3 also deals with two other important questions on the nature 
of explanation. First, N evaluates external explanations with respect to (i) 
whether they can be precisely formulated, (2) can identify a linkage between 
cause and effect, and (3) show measurable typological consequences. Of the 
various putative external explanations, he shows that only two (parsing � in 
particular the Early Immediate Constituents (EIC) analysis of Hawkins 
(1994)<and somewhat to my surprise, iconicity) meet these criteria. 
Second, he evaluates the claims that it is the interaction of external pressures 
that gives rise to typological phenomena. He concludes that due to the open 
ended nature of such explanations, there is no way to include them in a 
synchronic grammar. Instead, he shows, that while remaining entirely 
consistent with generative grammar, such factors can explain the 
evolutionary (or historical) origins of certain linguistic phenomena. An 
important moral, to my mind, lies in the generalizations developed by 
functionalists about the link between iconicity and syntactic form. While 
such generalizations are more often than not simply ignored by generative 
grammarians, N speculatively shows how they might be incorporated into a 
view with autonomous formal syntax. Having never been exposed to this 
literature (the fault of which lies at the feet of both my teachers and my own 
ignorance), I never would have been made aware of these very real 
generalizations if N hadn't brought them to my attention.
The next three chapters of _Language Form and Language Function_ 
deal with arguments that functionalists have pitted against a formalist (and 
primarily generativist) approaches to grammar. 
Chapter 4 takes on the question of whether syntactic categories 
constitute formal discrete algebraic entities (as is assumed by any formal 
approach), or rather stand on continua, based on some notion of semantically 
driven prototypes (as claimed by many functionalists). N examines the 
claims of 'syntagmatic simplicity' (the claim that prototypical words of a 
particular category are usually the most unmarked morphologically) and 
'paradigmatic complexity' (the claim that prototypical words of a particular 
category will show the greatest range of inflectional possibilities.) He claims 
that syntagmatic simplicity is not inconsistent with a discrete category 
approach -- as seen in the default Canonical Structural Realizations of Pinker 
1984 -- and that the data does not support 'paradigmatic complexity' in any 
but its weakest form. N shows that if you have a theory of markedness, then 
there is no need for a theory of prototypicality. He shows that the so called 
"fuzzy" cases of syntactic categories, such as the non-prototypical behavior 
of expletive 'there', may well following from other semantic or pragmatic 
properties rather than representing evidence that syntactic categories are not 
The phenomenon labeled "grammaticalization" (the idea that certain 
unidirectional shifts occur towards more functional items over time) is often 
touted as evidence in favor of functionalist approaches, as it is something 
that is not easily accounted for in a purely synchronic generative approach. 
N claims that grammaticalization is not really a theory, instead he claims 
that "none of the mechanisms they [Bybee et al] propose to explain 
[grammaticalization phenomena] S are specific to grammaticalization." 
Instead he claims that grammaticalization is a truly an epiphenomenon due 
to factors that any theory of diachronic changes (functionalist or formalist) 
must posit anyway. He shows that all aspects of grammaticalization are 
attested independently of one another and that unidirectionality is not-
empirically motivated (in fact it is contraindicated by the data).
Finally in chapter 6, Newmeyer casts his critical eye on the field of 
crosslinguistic typology. He observes first that despite functionalist claims to 
the contrary, linguistic typology is of interest to both functionalists and 
formalists, particular given recent advances in parametric variation in 
principles and parameters syntax. N is highly critical of the whole 
typological enterprise. He has doubts about the shape of the typological 
database, both in terms of the sample of languages as being in any way 
representative of the set of *possible* human languages, and in the fact that 
such material suffers from being overly reliant on secondary sources which 
themselves are subject to the biases of the initial researcher. He observes for 
example a great inconsistency in the criteria used to determine "basic word 
order", even among languages inside a single sample. He is suspicious of all 
but the most robust generalizations. This trouble, he claims plagues both 
functionalist and formalist approaches to typology.

Critical Evaluation.

	N closes his book with the following conclusions, which he claims are 
both correct and consistent with one another:
	"1) The grammatical properties of human language are best 
characterized in terms of autonomous formal systems.
	2) The grammatical properties of human language have been shaped 
by external pressures. " (N:365)
I think N succeeds in proving both of these points in this book. As such, this 
is a book that linguists of all theoretical stripes should read. The moral is 
well-taken, the inward-looking attitude of many generativists and the 
dismissive attitude of many functionalists are equally inappropriate. The two 
approaches are not as far apart as we would like to believe and we should 
pay attention to each other's results, in both directions. Having said this, I am 
sure this is a book likely to anger many functionalists. I am not in a position 
to evaluate the accuracy of N's representation of functionalist theories, but 
he is soundly critical of all but the most robust of their claims and 
generalizations. It definitely supports a formalist/generativist point of view.
	There was one area in which I was greatly disappointed, which lies in 
N's presentation of principles and parameters in almost exclusively GB 
terms. With a few minor exceptions here and there, N ignores the Minimalist 
approach to grammar (MP). I think this was a grave mistake on N's part, 
because if anything, Minimalism is a theory that is more amenable to 
functionalist thinking than GB and greatly supports his contention that 
language is both an autonomous formal system and subject to external 
pressures. In fact, it is a tenant of the MP that syntax is a "perfect" system, 
and that differences in word order, grammatical marking, etc are *all* due to 
external pressures (such as semantic and pragmatic criteria.) Some recent 
theorizing is even consistent with the notion that there are no discrete 
syntactic categories (only formal (phi) and semantic/lexical (lambda) 
features). In Bare Phrase Structure, Chomsky claims that there is no such 
category as Noun or Noun Phrase, rather, the relevant features of a word are 
projected to the next higher constituent level, thus we are able to contrast the 
properties of phrases headed by non-prototypical nouns like "there" and 
more prototypical ones like "dog". These structures may well have different 
structural properties.
	I started this review with the story of a dinner, at which I and one of 
my colleagues battled over these discipline dividing issues. I suspected that 
while we were debating, neither of us really understood the position of the 
other. Having now read N's book, I think I have a better understanding of my 
colleague's opinions. This doesn't mean that our dinnertime battles will be 
any less vocal or contentious, but at least I'll be able argue with him without 
spilling any more of his wine.

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