LINGUIST List 2.109

Tuesday, 2 Apr 1991

Disc: Functionalism

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  1. , Newmeyer and functionalism
  2. "Michael Kac", Functionalism vs. Formalism

Message 1: Newmeyer and functionalism

Date: 30 Mar 91 15:33:57 EST
From: <>
Subject: Newmeyer and functionalism
I think that someone more qualified than myself from the
functionalist camp should, and probably will, answer the recent
contribution by Fritz Newmeyer (Vo. 2, No. 102, 3/29/91).
However, I can't resist the temptation and will have a couple of
words to say about it.

As far as I'm concerned formal accounts of linguistic data are
fine as tighter restatements of some generalization or
observation about the data, but as far as being explanatory I
don't find them very interesting.

Formulas that "account for" interplanetary attraction and so on
are also not very interesting explanatorily speaking, but in that
area we may not be able to go beyond that for now. Language is
different though: We can go an awful long way towards
understanding/explaning linguistic phenomena without resorting to
formal principles of hocus pocus. For example we can go a long
ways towards understanding/explaining island phenomena
functionally without resorting to abstract barriers (cf e.g. Van
Valin 1986, CLS 22/2).

It is hard for me to understand why anyone would want to treat
one extreme of the grammaticalization scale (the "exceptionless"
end, if there is such a thing) as one type of phenomenon (be it
subject definiteness, or verb-second positioning) and every other
degree of grammaticalization, as well as the underlying
functional motivation, as a different kind of phenomenon. The
only reason someone could think like this is by holding the odd
initial assumption that language is at some level (the "core",
even if it's a very tiny core) a mathematical-like, formal
system. Although this was perhaps a plausible and interesting
assumption at one point, I think the data does not warrant such
an assumption anymore.

Sure some aspects of linguistic organization seem to act as part
of a system. Even Paul Hopper would agree with this. But this
system is not an independent formal system in any way, it is a
leaky, quasi/semi-stable system that is in constant contact with
the forces that mold it. It is more like the ice that forms in
the river in the winter which is in constant contact with the
water underneath and which in due time will melt back into it (i
admit this is not a very good metaphor, but it will have to do).
There is a lot of systematicity in language and most of it is not
necessarily 100 percent isomorphic with function/meaning, even in
the lowest corners of the periphery. This doesn't mean, by any
stretch of the imagination, that this sytematicity must be
autonomous from the underlying forces that mold it. Indeed form
once established may "take a life of its own", but you can be
sure that the leash will be short and that it won't wander very
far away.

And since Fritz brings up parasitic gaps, why not use this as a
case in point too. I must admit my lack of expertise in the
matter, but it seems obvious to me that the phenomenon is not
unrelated to the phenomenon of across-the-board extraction in
coordinate clauses. Given the functional/semantic similarity
between these clauses and coordinate clauses, one is not
surprised that zero-anaphora would come to be extended to these
special cases. I don't see how one can start analyzing
'parasitic gaps' from any other perspective. (For a down-to-
earth account (ie not a mathematical 'formula') of across-the-
board extraction I refer readers to Lakoff 1987, CLS 23)

Sure functional explanations won't be watertight and will have to
rely on a realistic theory of grammaticalization which explains
the sedimentation of functional principles, as well as a theory
of the interaction of relatively sedimented (grammaticalized)
functional principles (which are partially opaque) and the
underlying, non-grammaticalized principles themselves. But
linguistic and cognitive phenomena are not like gravitational
phenomena at all. They are much more probabilistic and multi-
functional. As I see it, formal principles (when they are meant
as explanations) make a mockery of the complexity of human
language and cognition, especially when they exclude from
consideration perhaps the majority of linguistic phenomena to
concentrate on isolated ones. This way, out of the fuller
context, it's no wonder that some people start to believe that
the phenomena is bizarre and unexplainable.

Jon Aske
UC Berkeley
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Message 2: Functionalism vs. Formalism

Date: Sun, 31 Mar 91 20:01:33 -0600
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Functionalism vs. Formalism
The discussion initiated by Newmeyer seems to accept his way of defining the
difference between functionalists and formalists, but I'm not sure that all
would agree with that way of drawing the dichotomy. From what I've seen of
functionalist linguistics (not a lot, but some) there seems to also be a
concern with characterizing what's available, and further, EXPLAINING its
availability by alluding to some kind of communicative need that specific
kinds of structures fulfill. I don't know if I necessarily buy that kind
of explanation (since I don't think it's at all established that languages
get the kinds of things they have because their speakers need them, though
it may well be true that once they're available they get used to satisfy
specific communicative needs), but I get the impression anyway that there
are people out there to whom that's the name of the game.

Michael Kac

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