Functionalism & Future
Presented by : Sidra Shafi
What is Functionalism
• Functionalism is a reaction against the "formal"
linguistics theories that began with Saussurean
Structuralism in the early 1900s.
• Structuralism let go of diachronic language study
(language change over time)
• in the 1970s Functionalism reopened diachronic study
as a means of discovering the answer to how language
change fits language function: change according to use
• Functionalists focus on all categories of linguistics
including phonology and syntax and grammar.
• Structuralists make no attempt to explain linguistics,
"letting the structure simply be" (DeLancey).
• First published Tue Aug 24, 2004; substantive revision Wed Jul
• Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that
what makes something a mental state of a particular type.
• does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on
the way it functions, or the role it plays.
• This doctrine is rooted in Aristotle's conception of the soul,
and has antecedents in Hobbes's conception of the mind as a
“calculating machine”, but it has become fully articulated (and
popularly endorsed) only in the last third of the 20th century.
• Though the term ‘functionalism’ is used to designate a variety
of positions in a variety of other disciplines, including
psychology, sociology, economics, and architecture.
• Structuralism, begun by Saussure, focuses on
structural interconnections in synchronic
context (language at a synchronous,
specifically selected, moment in time).
• It is synchronic interconnectedness that
obviates(bypass) the need for diachronic
linguistic knowledge (language change
Characteristics of Functionalist work
• interest in diachrony, emphasis on the constantly changing nature
• structure and the diachronic origins of grammatical patterns
• interest in broad cross-linguistic patterns, generalizations based on
a wide variety of languages (typology; "functional-typological
• no assumption of a (small set of) universal formal categories (but
meanings must be universal in some way)
• no interest in developing descriptive(explanatory) frameworks with
• interest in regularities of language use (e.g. corpus data= organized)
• no strict division between grammar(sentence structure) and
• descriptive economy is not an important criterion
• the innate human linguistic endowment is not seen as constraining
the form of grammars in an interesting sense
• Functions exist on all levels of grammar, and even in
phonology, where the function of the phoneme is to
distinguish between lexical material.
• Semantic function: (Agent, Patient, Recipient, etc.),
describing the role of participants in states of affairs or
• Syntactic functions: (e.g. subject and Object), defining
different perspectives in the presentation of a linguistic
• Pragmatic functions: (Theme , Topic and Focus, Predicate),
defining the informational status of constituents,
determined by the pragmatic context of the verbal
• Functional linguists study language function (or
performance), formal linguists study language form (or
NO: Functionalists claim that the explanation of language
form involves appreciating the regularities of language
• Functional linguists reject the competence/performance
NO: Functionalists try to explain competence on the basis
of performance, because they think that competence can
be affected by performance.
• Functional linguists think that nothing in language structure
NO: Everyone recognizes that grammars are full of
arbitrariness, but functionalists emphasize non-
arbitrariness and attempt explanation wherever possible.
• Functional linguists reject the autonomy of syntax.
NO: If autonomy is defined as in Newmeyer (1998)
("systematic arbitrariness in syntax exists"), it is
• Functionalists only reject the idea that syntax should
be studied as if functional explanation were impossible
(just as formal linguists reject the idea that syntax
should be studied as if systematic arbitrary
generalizations were impossible).
• Functional linguistics is a theoretical.
• NO: Functionalists don't think of description as
explanatory, hence they do not emphasize the
properties of the descriptive tools they work with.
Why functional explanations are
• they are more general, because they link
linguistic facts to non-linguistic facts
• they allow exceptions (e.g. German & other
languages), so their empirical coverage is
• they are cognitively more conceivable than a
highly specified innate UG with constraints.
• functional explanations are testable, unlike the
Functional sentence perspective
• Prague School Linguists use the term which
emphasizes the functionalist motivation of research on
the topic. For Example:
i. This morning he got up late.
ii. He got up late this morning.
• Might be regarded as different versions of the same
sentence or different sentences. Whichever point of
view the adopt, two things are clear:
1. truth – conditionally equivalent and a narrow inter
2. the context in which (i) would be uttered differ
systematically from the context in which (2) would be
uttered. In so far as word – order is held to be a
matter of syntax,
Objections to Functionalism
• The previous sections were devoted to the
presentation of the different varieties of
functionalism and the evaluation of their
relative strengths and weaknesses
• There have been many objections to
functionalism which apply to all versions of
The Future of Functionalism
• “Formalism seeks to replace real language with
ideal language; functionalism seeks to discover
• functionalism can expect massive assistance
from an important new resource. Using
computers with sophisticated software, usage of
much larger corpora of authentic data than
• The ‘observed use of language’ can not just
‘constitute the subject-matter of linguistics’ (pace
Chomsky), but reconstitute it with principles that
are both quantitatively and qualitatively new
• an evolutionary functionalism concerned
with increasing the freedom and equality of
access to knowledge and social standing
• Cognitive functionalism combines the goals of
functionalism and of cognitive linguistics,.
• It tries to explain the properties of language in
terms of the cognitive pressures on language.
• In general, we can say that functionalism in
linguistics has tended to emphasize the
instrumental(active) character of language. There
is a natural similarity,
• Fucntionalism firmly opposed to generativism.
• language is determined by the several
interdependent semiotic(study of symbols & signs-
lang system of communication) function
• Functionalism, on the other hand, seeks functional
explanations for language in terms of general
assumptions such as the principle of contrast