LINGUIST List 8.682

Thu May 8 1997

Disc: Functionalism

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Robert Kirchner, Re: Question on functionalism
  2. Esa, functionalism

Message 1: Re: Question on functionalism

Date: Thu, 8 May 1997 10:04:16 -0500
From: Robert Kirchner <>
Subject: Re: Question on functionalism

In questioning the explanatory value of functionally grounded constraints,
Reiss (LINGUIST 8.680) imagines 

> Contrarianism
>The " forces" necessary to understand language are that
> 1a)difficult articulation is good and
> 2a)merger of contrast is good.
>(1a) means something like "the speaker likes a challenge" and (2a) says
>"the heck with the hearer". As far as I can tell this set of assumptions
>leads to exactly the same outcome and provides the same level of
>understanding as the "standard" functionalist view sketched above.

On the contrary, "contrarianism" leads to a radically different class of

For example, a contrarian grammar would disfavor reduction in the contexts
and under pragmatic conditions where the articulation is most difficult. 
We would expect pervasive processes of intervocalic occlusivization,
intervocalic devoicing, etc., and fortition, rather than lenition, in fast
speech. Typical epenthetic consonants would be things like linguolabial
trills. Homorganic clusters /nd/ would dissimilate to [md]. 

Similarly, contrasts should be neutralized precisely in the contexts where
they are most perceptually robust, e.g. all prevocalic stops should
neutralize to /t/, while the richest set of consonant place distinctions
should be maintained in the middle of tri-consonantal clusters. 

More seriously, in contrarianism, there is nothing corresponding to
faithfulness (the heck with the hearer). So all underlying distinctions
would neutralize to freely varying surface forms; the harder the surface
forms are to pronounce, the better. Thus /pat/ -> a sequence of ejective
sibilants interrupted by post-alveolar clicks.

Need I go on?

The "anarchy" scenario (no functional - or dysfunctional - explanation at
all, just a random collection of processes) is equivalent to SPE without
Ch. 9. The sorts of facts that motivated Ch. 9, and markedness theory
generally, would seem to falsify this view of phonology.
Robert Kirchner Linguistics Dept. U. Illinois, Urbana 61801 

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Message 2: functionalism

Date: Thu, 8 May 1997 12:10:08 -0900 (PDT)
From: Esa <>
Subject: functionalism

Charles Reiss writes (LINGUIST 8.680): "All three
of these initial assumptions are equally valid since they lead to the
same result"; and he asks where, if anywhere, he might have gone
wrong. Perhaps here: It is a well-known fact that different causes may
produce the same effect (whereas the opposite is not, at least in the
deterministic domain, the case). Thus A, B or C MAY produce D. But it
does not follow that, at a given moment and in a given context, A, B,
and C are equally probable (or 'equally valid') as causes of D.

Esa Itkonen
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