form and function

David B. Kronenfeld kfeld at CITRUS.UCR.EDU
Mon Mar 6 17:52:36 UTC 2000

Dear Funknetters,
         Anent form and function, in case you are interested in an offering
from the perspective of anthropological work on word semantics, let me
offer the following (thinly outlined from my 1996 Plastic Glasses and
Church Fathers, OUP).  The interactions are a bit complicated (for which I
apologize), but my sense is that the complications are intrinsic to how we
do it.
         In my theory a functional situation causes something (object,
action, attribute, or whatever)  to be talked of  frequently enough to get
its own word (Saussurean "sign"), and to be distinguished from otherwise
similar things with which it gets contrasted.  The "signified" part of the
sign, the concept, is formed through the interaction of what's functionally
important about the something with the form of its semantic relations and
typical exemplars.  The signified is linked to an abstract pragmatic schema
of the relevant objects and relations of the functional situation.  The
primary (non-linguistic) reference of the signified is to a focal referent
(or prototype).  The focal referent is represented in a filled out form in
the pragmatic schema--that is, with more detail than what is "essential"
(in the sense of being actually necessary for effective functioning).  In
the absence of any other contextual information, discussions involving the
sign will be taken by speakers as referring to the prototype.  In ordinary,
everyday usage, many of the things we speak of do not have their own words,
and so get spoken of via other words; that is, words whose focal references
are to something else get their ranges extended to cover these things.  The
focal referent is defined jointly in terms of the function served by
whatever generated the sign and the form typically taken by whatever serves
that function.  The simplest extension is to other referents that fit the
form definition and the function definition, but that differ from the
prototype's detailed specification.  Specifically "denotative" extension is
to referents that fit the form definition, but that do not fit the
functional one, while specifically "connotative" extension is to referents
that fit the function definition but not the form one.  Figurative
extension is to referents outside the domain of the basic sign; figurative
extension is a two stage process in which first a source domain is selected
that carries useful information relative to the target domain and the
communicative aims, and  second the relations among entities (properties,
or ...) in the target domain are matched with the pragmatic schema
relations of the source domain in order to pick  a sign/word which
accomplishes the desired communication.
         In the book I offer reasons for speakers' assigning definitional
primacy to form attributes, evinced inter alia via  the application of
hedges such as "is really..., but ..." to examples which fit the folk
denotative definition but not the folk connotative one.  Conversely, cases
which fit connotatively but not denotatively are edged differently--"is not
really ..., but is more like" or " used like/as if ..."
         In other work (outside the book) I have adduced empirical data
showing the sharp difference between typicality and prototypicality, and in
the book I discuss the reasons for the importance of the distinction.  The
traditional distinction between essential vs. accidental features is taken
as applying to prototypic referents rather than extended ranges (which
enables a sensible reconsideration of past negative evidence regarding
essential  attributes); the features of prototypic referents are split into
those which are essential to the functional basis of the category (and to
the category's semantic relations) vs. those which are common but
unnecessary (or unimportant) features of typical exemplars.  Changes over
time in prototypic exemplars are considered in this connection.
         In sum, I want to suggest that the form/function distinction is
important to our native speaker processing of at least some linguistic
phenomena, but that form and function are tightly tied together in that
processing.   From this strongly functional point of view, even from an
admittedly outsider's relationship to functional linguistics, I would like
to see the discussion of the use of form (including formal
characterizations of linguistic phenomena) separated from discussion of the
uses or virtues of formal descriptions (aka formalist theories) of
linguistic phenomena, and that separated in turn from any consideration of
the particular uses or drawbacks of any one formalist theory or its
adherents.  I might add that my views on these matters come in part out of
a long history of work on kinship terminological systems (not, I should
hasten to add, what the book deals with), where the function vs. form or
structure debate has been going on for a very long time--and maybe now is
finally nearing some effective reconciliation.
                                         Thank you,
David B. Kronenfeld             Phone   Office  909/787-4340
Department of Anthropology              Message 909/787-5524
University of California                Fax     909/787-5409
Riverside, CA 92521             email   kfeld at

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