Question about functional approaches

David Parkinson dp11 at CORNELL.EDU
Wed Jul 2 13:59:32 UTC 1997

Hello FUNKNET members:
        Myself and some grad student colleagues who have an informal
discussion group here at Cornell have a question or two that we thought
could be answered on this list.
        As I understand it, the functionalist <--> formalist dimension is
orthogonal to the innate (language-specific) knowledge <--> non-innate
(general cognitive) knowledge dimension. Presumably one could have:

(1)     highly functional syntax as well as innate language-specific
        learning principles;
(2)     highly functional syntax and no language-specific learning
(3)     "dysfunctional" syntax as well as innate language-specific
        learning principles;
(4)     "dysfunctional" syntax and no language-specific learning

This is pretty sketchy, I admit, but the idea, I hope, is clear. My feeling
is that generativists tend towards (3) and many functionalists towards (2).
For obvious reasons, (1) and (4) seem to be out on limbs of their own, but
they are logically possible positions to hold; just hard to adduce evidence
for, perhaps. Clearly, it is strange to talk about "functionality" vs.
"dysfunctionality" as though it were as cut-and-dried as the issue of
whether or not there are language-specific learning mechanisms;
functionality inheres in parts of a system to varying degrees, whereas
innateness defines the nature of a system from the outside, as it were.
        As befits our East Polar status, weare trained here in generative
grammatical theory, but some of us have been trying to learn more about
functional approaches, especially to syntax, since syntax so readily leads
to debates about innateness of linguistic knowledge. There is a whole
standard set of problems in generative syntax, whose ultimate explanation
points towards innateness claims, via poverty of the stimulus, etc. Some of
these include that-trace effects, subjacency violations, ECP effects,
wh-islands, what used to be the SSC and NIC, the Head Movement Constraint,
and so on. Can anyone out there suggest places we could look to see how a
functionalist approach would answer questions of this type? Do
functionalist theories of syntax have as a goal this sort of investigation?
        Having been trained in formalist and nativist theories of syntax,
we are curious to see whether there is any cross-talk between these two
areas. Do functionalists consider the questions that formalists ask worth
answering? Is there an entirely different approach and entirelyt different
issues and questions to be answered that leave aside the traditional
concerns of generative theories?
        If anyone out there can suggest places we can start looking for
some ways in which similar linguistic data can be viewed through the lenses
of both theoretical appraoches, we would be happy. If there are really no
or very few problems common to both approaches, this is interesting (and
        If I have gone of the rails here, please let me know where and how
(why, too, if you feel combative!). If anyone has a response to these or
related questions, I am happy to take responses by personal e-mail, and
provide a summary. Your anonymity will be respected if you ask me to do so.

Thanks in advance,
David Parkinson
dp11 at

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