Question about functional approaches

Lise Menn, Linguistics, CU Boulder lmenn at CLIPR.COLORADO.EDU
Wed Jul 2 20:08:58 UTC 1997

There's another factor to consider, or maybe just another way to phrase
what you've said: innateness vs. the ability to learn and to abstract
patterns.  The functionalist approach by itself doesn't deal with
whether/how patterns are acquired; just because something is motivated by
or fulfills a function doesn't mean that it's learnable.
Some functionalists aren't terribly interested in this issue; others of
us  definitely are. YOu might like to to look at the papers on the
innateness issue in BLS 22, which has just come out.

On Wed, 2 Jul 1997, David Parkinson wrote:

> 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
>         principles;
> (3)     "dysfunctional" syntax as well as innate language-specific
>         learning principles;
> (4)     "dysfunctional" syntax and no language-specific learning
>         principles;
> 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
> distressing).
>         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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