Functional linguistics

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Functional theories of grammar)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

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. Functional theories of grammar belong to structural[1] and humanistic linguistics.[2] 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.

Functional analysis[edit]

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.

Functional explanation[edit]

In functional explanation, a linguistic structure is explained with an appeal to its function.[3] Functional linguistics takes as its starting point the notion that communication is the primary function 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, functional linguistics takes the perspective that the organisation of language reflects its functional value.[2]


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).[4]

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.[4]

Information structure[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6]

Functional principles[edit]

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.[6]
  • Animated first: similarly, since subjects are more likely to be animate, they are more likely to precede the object.[6]
  • Given before new: old information comes before new information.[7]
  • First things first: more important or more urgent information comes before other information.[7]
  • Lightness: light (short) constituents are ordered before heavy (long) constituents.[8]
  • Uniformity: word order choices are generalised.[8] 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.[9][10]
  • 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.
  • Simon Dik's Functional Grammar, originally developed in the 1970s and 80s, has been influential and inspired many other functional theories.[11][12] It has been developed into Functional Discourse Grammar by the linguist Kees Hengeveld.[13][14]
  • 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".[15][16] Halliday draws on the work of Bühler and Malinowski. The link between Firthian linguistics and Alfred North Whitehead also deserves a mention.[17]
  • 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.[18][19]
  • Danish functional grammar combines Saussurean/Hjelmslevian structuralism with a focus on pragmatics and discourse.[20]

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)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Butler, Christopher S. (2003). Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major Structural-Functional Theories, part 1 (PDF). John Benjamins. ISBN 9781588113580. Retrieved 2020-01-19.
  2. ^ a b Daneš, František (1987). "On Prague school functionalism in linguistics". In Dirven, R.; Fried, V. (eds.). Functionalism in Linguistics. John Benjamins. pp. 3–38. ISBN 9789027215246.
  3. ^ Couch, Mark. "Causal role theories of functional explanation". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ISSN 2161-0002. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  4. ^ a b Vincentini, Alessandra (2003). "The economy principle in language. Notes and observations from early modern English grammars". Mots. Words. Palabras. 3: 37–57. Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  5. ^ Firbas, Jan (1987). "On the delimitation of the theme in functional sentence perspective". In Dirven, R.; Fried, V. (eds.). Functionalism in Linguistics. John Benjamins. pp. 137–156. ISBN 9789027215246.
  6. ^ a b c Song, Jae Jung (2012). Word Order. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139033930.
  7. ^ a b Payne, Doris (1987). "Information structuring in Papago narrative discourse". Language. 63 (4): 783–804.
  8. ^ a b Haberland, Hartmut; Heltoft, Jens (1992). "Universals, explanations and pragmatics". In Matras, Y; Kefer, M; Auwera, J V D (eds.). Meaning and Grammar: Cross-linguistic Perspectives. De Gruyter. pp. 17–26. ISBN 978-3-11-085165-6.
  9. ^ Newmeyer, Frederick. (2001). The Prague School and North American functionalist approaches to syntax. Journal of Linguistics vol. 37. 101 - 126
  10. ^ Novak, P., Sgall, P. 1968. On the Prague functional approach. Trav. Ling. Prague 3:291-97. Tuscaloosa: Univ. Alabama Press
  11. ^ Dik, S. C. 1980. Studies in Functional Grammar. London: Academic
  12. ^ Dik, S. C. 1981. Functional Grammar. Dordrecht/Cinnaminson NJ: Foris.
  13. ^ Hengeveld, Kees & Mackenzie, J. Lachlan (2010), Functional Discourse Grammar. In: Bernd Heine and Heiko Narrog eds, The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 367-400.
  14. ^ Hengeveld, Kees & Mackenzie, J. Lachlan (2008), Functional Discourse Grammar: A typologically-based theory of language structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  15. ^ Halliday, M.A.K. forthcoming. Meaning as Choice. In Fontaine, L, Bartlett, T, and O'Grady, G. Systemic Functional Linguistics: Exploring Choice. Cambridge University Press. p1.
  16. ^ Halliday, M. A. K. 1984. A Short Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Arnold
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Foley, W. A., Van Valin, R. D. Jr. 1984. Functional Syntax and Universal Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press
  19. ^ Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. (Ed.). (1993). Advances in Role and Reference Grammar. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  20. ^ 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.