functionalism vs generativism vs ...

Dick Hudson dick at LINGUISTICS.UCL.AC.UK
Mon Jan 4 10:17:32 UTC 1999

Thanks to Scott Delancey for the helpful explanation of functionalism. I'm
very happy to hear such an inclusive definition, but I wonder what it
excludes. What would an explanation have to be like to count as
non-functional? After all, even an explanation like subjacency would count
as functional if we assumed that it was a cognitive constraint (as
Chomskians would assume, I think). And the original functionalists in
phonology insisted that elements were defined by contrasts within the
system, i.e. by their function of contrasting with other elements. My
memory of Systemic Functional Grammar is that the same is true there.  This
sounds like an extra kind of function, which isn't included in Scott's list
- a `formal function'?

So maybe *any* explanation is by definition functional, even if the word
'function' isn't used?

>I have no argument with Dick's larger point, but I want to take issue
>with the definition of functionalism which is implied here.  The
>differences between functional and formal approaches have always been
>described, and in part defined, by arguments about what counts as data.
>As generative grammar has come to take more and more cognizance of
>typological and historical data, it may be true, by this point in time,
>that functionalism defined by the database differs from formalism
>primarily in its inclusion of discourse structure as both explanans and
>explanandum.  But while there are functionalists who attempt to explain
>everything in discourse terms, this can't be taken as a definition
>of functionalism, unless we want to exclude the likes of Givon or
>Bybee or Heine from that label.  Such a restriction would certainly be
>       The basic difference between functionalism and formalism is in
>where explanations are lodged, and what counts as an explanation.
>Formal linguistics generates explanations out of structure--so
>that a structural category like Subjacency counts as an
>explanation for certain facts about various syntactic structures
>and constructions.  Most contemporary formal theories, certainly
>generative grammar, provide ontological grounding for these
>explanations in a hypothesized, but  unexplored and unexplained,
>biologically based universal language faculty.
>     Functionalists, in contrast, find explanations in function.
>Formal principles can be no more than generalizations over data, so that
>most generative "explanation" seems to functionalists to proceed on the
>dormitive principle.
>     There is a range of different functional arenas in which
>explanation can be sought--sentence processing / memory
>constraints, discourse functions, cognitive structure, even historical
>tendencies.  Of course most researchers specialize in one of these areas,
>(or at least in one at a time; think of Chafe's earlier work on
>semantic patterns as explanation for structure, and his later work
>primarily on discourse).  And sometimes--as everywhere in science and
>scholarship--some of us come to believe that all real explanation lies in
>our own bailiwick.  But in truth the different domains of functional
>explanation don't separate out all that easily.
>     In particular, when we talk about cognitive explanations, we're
>explicitly claiming that linguistic structure is informed by general
>patterns of thought.  Obviously these same cognitive factors must inform
>other domains such as discourse structure as well, so that at a
>sufficiently deep level of analysis "cognitive" and "discourse-functional"
>theories are complementary.  While it is certainly true that, on the
>contemporary linguistic scene, "cognitive" and "functional" linguists
>represent distinct (though overlapping) social-interactional sets,
>I think it is a mistake to regard them as competing theoretical
>Scott DeLancey
>Department of Linguistics
>University of Oregon
>Eugene, OR 97403, USA
>delancey at

Richard (= Dick) Hudson

Phonetics and Linguistics, University College London,
Gower Street, London WC1E  6BT.
+44(0)171 419 3152; fax +44(0)171 383 4108;

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