form and function

Matthew S Dryer dryer at ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU
Fri Mar 3 17:26:15 UTC 2000

I thought it might be worth adding to the recent discussion regarding the
need to identify and describe form independent of function the observation
that while one might expect that such a practice would be normal for
formal linguists, I think that there is a strong tendency for this NOT to
be the case, at least with respect to analyses of languages other than
English.  Namely, I believe that there is a strong tendency (with
exceptions) in formal work on languages other than English to assume forms
and structures that are identified largely on the basis of their meaning.

For example, the work on Mohawk by Mark Baker frequently assumes that
Mohawk sentences have structures that look like the structures of the
English translations, without much attempt to justify these structures in
terms of evidence from Mohawk forms.  This contrasts sharply with much of
the work on Mohawk and other Iroquoian languages by Wally Chafe and
Marianne Mithun, whose assumptions about how to describe these languages
are firmly grounded in the system of forms that is specifically Iroquoian.

Admittedly, there is much functional-typological work where linguists who
are not experts on a language assume analyses that derive largely from the
English translations, but I think that it is fair to say that
functionally-oriented linguists working more intensively on specific
languages are more likely than formal linguists to assume analyses
motivated by forms within the language rather than to assume descriptions
of form motivated largely by their English translations.

Matthew Dryer

More information about the Funknet mailing list