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Functional linguistics is the approach to the study of language that sees functionality of language and its elements to be the key to understanding linguistic processes and structures. Functional theories of language propose that since language is fundamentally a tool, it is reasonable to assume that its structures are best analyzed and understood with reference to the functions they carry out. These include the tasks of conveying meaning and contextual information.
Functional theories of grammar belong to structural and humanistic linguistics, considering language as a rational human construction. They take into account the context where linguistic elements are used and study the way they are instrumentally useful or functional in the given environment. This means that functional theories of grammar tend to pay attention to the way language is actually used in communicative context. The formal relations between linguistic elements are assumed to be functionally-motivated.
Simon Dik characterises the functional approach as follows:
In the functional paradigm a language is in the first place conceptualized as an instrument of social interaction among human beings, used with the intention of establishing communicative relationships. Within this paradigm one attempts to reveal the instrumentality of language with respect to what people do and achieve with it in social interaction. A natural language, in other words, is seen as an integrated part of the communicative competence of the natural language user. (2, p. 3)
1920s to 1970s: early developments
The establishment of functional linguistics follows from a shift from structural to functional explanation in 1920s sociology. Prague, at the crossroads of western European structuralism and Russian formalism, became an important centre for functional linguistics.
The shift was related to the organic analogy exploited by Émile Durkheim and Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure had argued in his Course in General Linguistics that the 'organism' of language should be studied anatomically and not in respect with its environment, to avoid the false conclusions made by August Schleicher and other social Darwinists. The post-Saussurean functionalist movement sought ways to account for the 'adaptation' of language to its environment while still remaining strictly anti-Darwinian.
Russian émigrés Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy disseminated insights of Russian grammarians in Prague, but also the evolutionary theory of Lev Berg, arguing for teleology of language change. As Berg's theory failed to gain popularity outside the Soviet Union, the organic aspect of functionalism was diminished, and Jakobson adopted a standard model of functional explanation from Ernst Nagel's philosophy of science. It is, then, the same mode of explanation as in biology and social sciences; but it became emphasised that the word 'adaptation' is not to be understood in linguistics in the same meaning as in biology.
1980s onward: name controversy
The term 'functionalism' or 'functional linguistics' became controversial in the 1980s with the rise of a new wave of Darwinian linguistics. Johanna Nichols argued that the meaning of 'functionalism' had changed, and the terms formalism and functionalism, respectively, should be taken as referring to generative grammar and the emergent linguistics of Paul Hopper and Sandra Thompson; while only the term structuralism should be reserved for frameworks derived from the Prague linguistic circle.
William Croft argued subsequently that it is a fact to be agreed by all linguists that form does not follow from function. He proposes that 'structuralism' and 'formalism' should both be taken as referring to generative grammar, and 'functionalism to usage-based and cognitive linguistics; while neither André Martinet, Systemic functional linguistics nor Functional discourse grammar properly represents any of the three concepts.
The situation was further complicated by the arrival of evolutionary psychological thinking in linguistics, with Steven Pinker, Ray Jackendoff and others hypothesising that the human language faculty, or universal grammar, could have developed through normal evolutionary processes, thus defending an adaptational explanation of the origin and evolution of language. This brought about a functionalism‒formalism debate, with Frederick Newmeyer arguing that the evolutionary psychological approach to linguistics should also be considered as functionalist.
The terms functionalism and functional linguistics nonetheless continue to be used by the Prague linguistic circle and its derivatives, including SILF, Danish functional school, Systemic functional linguistics and Functional discourse grammar; and the American framework Role and reference grammar which sees itself as the midway between formal and functional linguistics.
Functional analysis is the examination of how linguistic elements function on different layers of linguistic structure, and how the levels interact with each other. Functions exist on all levels of grammar, even in phonology, where the phoneme has the function of distinguishing between lexical material.
- Syntactic functions: (e.g. Subject and Object), defining different perspectives in the presentation of a linguistic expression.
- Semantic functions: (Agent, Patient, Recipient, etc.), describing the role of participants in states of affairs or actions expressed.
- Pragmatic functions: (Theme and Rheme, Topic and Focus, Predicate), defining the informational status of constituents, determined by the pragmatic context of the verbal interaction.
In the functional mode of explanation, a linguistic structure is explained with an appeal to its function. Functional linguistics takes as its starting point the notion that communication is the primary purpose of language. Therefore, general phonological, morphosyntactic and semantic phenomena are thought of as being motivated by the needs of people to communicate successfully with each other. Thus, the perspective is taken that the organisation of language reflects its use value.
The concept of economy is metaphorically transferred from a social or economical context to a linguistic level. It is considered as a regulating force in language maintenance. Controlling the impact of language change or internal and external conflicts of the system, the economy principle means that systemic coherence is maintained without increasing energy cost. This is why all human languages, no matter how different they are, have high functional value as based on a compromise between the competing motivations of speaker-easiness (simplicity or inertia) versus hearer-easiness (clarity or energeia).
The principle of economy was elaborated by the French structural–functional linguist André Martinet. Martinet's concept is similar to Zipf's principle of least effort; although the idea had been discussed by various linguists in the late 19th and early 20th century. The functionalist concept of economy is not to be confused with economy in generative grammar.
Some key adaptations of functional explanation are found in the study of information structure. Based on earlier linguists' work, Prague Circle linguists Vilém Mathesius, Jan Firbas and others elaborated the concept of theme–rheme relations (topic and comment) to study pragmatic concepts such as sentence focus, and givenness of information, to successfully explain word-order variation. The method has been used widely in linguistics to uncover word-order patterns in the languages of the world. Its importance, however, is limited to within-language variation, with no apparent explanation of cross-linguistic word order tendencies.
Several principles from pragmatics have been proposed as functional explanations of linguistic structures, often in a typological perspective.
- Theme first: languages prefer placing the theme before the rheme; and the subject typically carries the role of the theme; therefore, most languages have subject before object in their basic word order.
- Animated first: similarly, since subjects are more likely to be animate, they are more likely to precede the object.
- Given before new: old information comes before new information.
- First things first: more important or more urgent information comes before other information.
- Lightness: light (short) constituents are ordered before heavy (long) constituents.
- Uniformity: word order choices are generalised. For example, languages tend to have either prepositions or postpositions; and not both equally.
- Functional load: elements within a linguistic sub-system are made distinct to avoid confusion.
There are several distinct grammatical frameworks that employ a functional approach.
- The structuralist functionalism of the Prague school was the earliest functionalist framework developed in the 1920s.
- André Martinet's Functional Syntax, with two major books, A functional view of language (1962) and Studies in Functional Syntax (1975). Martinet is one of the most famous French linguists and can be regarded as the father of French functionalism. Founded by Martinet and his colleagues, SILF (Société internationale de linguistique fonctionnelle) is an international organisation of functional linguistics which operates mainly in French.
- Simon Dik's Functional Grammar, originally developed in the 1970s and 80s, has been influential and inspired many other functional theories. It has been developed into Functional Discourse Grammar by the linguist Kees Hengeveld.
- Michael Halliday's systemic functional grammar argues that the explanation of how language works "needed to be grounded in a functional analysis, since language had evolved in the process of carrying out certain critical functions as human beings interacted with their ... 'eco-social' environment". Halliday draws on the work of Bühler and Malinowski. The link between Firthian linguistics and Alfred North Whitehead also deserves a mention.
- Role and reference grammar, developed by Robert Van Valin employs functional analytical framework with a somewhat formal mode of description. In RRG, the description of a sentence in a particular language is formulated in terms of its semantic structure and communicative functions, as well as the grammatical procedures used to express these meanings.
- Danish functional grammar combines Saussurean/Hjelmslevian structuralism with a focus on pragmatics and discourse.
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- See David G. Butt, Whiteheadian and Functional Linguistics in Michel Weber and Will Desmond (eds.). Handbook of Whiteheadian Process Thought (Frankfurt / Lancaster, Ontos Verlag, 2008, vol. II) ; cf. Ronny Desmet & Michel Weber (edited by), Whitehead. The Algebra of Metaphysics. Applied Process Metaphysics Summer Institute Memorandum, Louvain-la-Neuve, Les Éditions Chromatika, 2010.
- Foley, W. A., Van Valin, R. D. Jr. 1984. Functional Syntax and Universal Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press
- Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. (Ed.). (1993). Advances in Role and Reference Grammar. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
- Engberg-Pedersen, Elisabeth; Michael Fortescue; Peter Harder; Lars Heltoft; Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen (eds.). (1996) Content, expression and structure: studies in Danish functional grammar. John Benjamins Publishing Company.