Notes on Functional Linguistics

I mentioned in a previous post that the department of linguistics at the University of Oregon, where I study, is a “bastion of functional linguistics”. So, what is functional linguistics?

Those who call themselves “Functional Linguists” differ on many aspects of linguistic theory, but the one central principle they all share is the answer to the question “What constitutes a satisfactory explanation for the observable facts about language?”Functional explanations are based on communicative function. Languages around the world are in some ways very similar and in other ways radically different because they have been shaped by differing social, and historical processes, but for the one universal purpose of communication based on human cognition. This is in contrast to a formalist explanation that seeks to explain observable (surface) facts about language in terms of a deeper (underlying) level of language.

One of my professors, Scott DeLancey, uses the analogy that language structures are like tools. Most societies in the world have a need to chop things, so most societies have some kind of an axe, or chopping tool. These tools may come in different sizes and shapes, depending on the way they have developed over time in a particular society and environment, but they all have the same basic function and are all used by human hands, so there are also similarities in form: some part to hold onto and some kind of cutting edge.

Similarly, different societies have the need to espress many of the same things. The concept of possession is a good example. Compare the differing structures used to express posession in English, Tajik, and Yaghnobi:

  • In English, we have possessive pronouns, a possessive suffix on possessors, and the verb ‘have’.
  • In Tajik, there are no possessive pronouns, but there are personal suffixes on nouns that indicate possession, there is a genitive suffix on possessed items, a special grammatical construction, /azoni/ ‘belongs to’, and the verb /doshtan/ ‘to have’.
  • In Yaghnobi, there are personal suffixes on pronouns, a genitive suffix on the possessor, a possessive siffix /-ik/ on the possessed, the verb /dorak/ ‘have’, the copula /ast/ ‘be, have’, and possession can be expressed with the zero copula.

Each of these three languages have very different structures for expressing possession, but while there may be different nuances in meaning, they all accomplished the same general function. Historical and cognitive analysis of these different forms could give us insight into how these different forms developed, and why these particular forms reoccur in so many different languages. But, communicative function, rather than deep structure, is the principle that guides a functional explanation of these different structures for expressing possession.

Here are a what I consider to be the core principles that characterize Functional Linguistics:

  • All areas of linguistics (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse) are interrelated. There are no clear-cut boundaries between them. This is in contrast to the Chomsky’s concept of autonomy for each area of linguistics.
  • Language similarities are based on similar human needs for communication and on general cognitive functions of the human brain. They are not based on an innate Universal Grammar. (Of course Functionalists agree that there is an innate human language ability, but do not believe there is any evidence for a prewired universal grammar that we are all born with.)
  • Diachronic processes (language evolution) must be taken into account for a complete understanding of a language at any given time. This is in contrast to formalist approaches that attempt purely synchronic (language use at a given point in history) explanations of language.

For further reading:

DeLancey, Scott. 2001. On Functionalism. Functional Syntax Lectures. Online:
(The first lecture, On functionalism, gives a very poignant and thorough description of functionalism from a respected, if controversial, representative of the functional linguistics movement.)

 Dryer, Matthew S. 2006. Functionalism and the Theory – Metalanguage Confusion. In Phonology, Morphology, and the Empirical Imperative: Papers in Honour of Bruce Derwing, edited by Grace Wiebe, Gary Libben, Tom Priestly, Ron Smyth, and Sam Wang, pp. 27-59. Taipei: The Crane Publishing Company. Online:

Givón, T. 2001. Syntax: An introduction. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
(Chapter 1, The functional approach to language and the typological approach to grammar, gives a detailed description of “functional-typological” linguistics from one of the main voices in the functional linguistics movement.)

Harris, Randy. 1995. The Linguistic Wars. New York: Oxford University Press

Haspelmath, Martin.2004. Does linguistic explanation presuppose linguistic description? Studies in Language.28.3: 554-579. Online:

Newmeyer, Frederick. 2002b. Where is functional explanation?. Papers from the Thirty-Seventh Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. M. Andronis, C. Ball, H. Elston and S. Neuvel. Chicago, Chicago Linguistic Society. Online:
(This is an explanation of functionalism from the perspective of a formalist.)

Payne, Doris. 1999. What counts as explanation?: a functionalist approach to word order. Functionalism and formalism in linguistics, volume 1: general papers , 137-165. Studies in Language Companion Series, 41, 42. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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