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Nel

Functional Linguist here!!!!

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Hi everyone

Just wanted to get a feel on how many functional linguists are out here (sorry Chomskyians)?

It'll be good to also let us have an idea of the areas you work in, I'll go first:

Corpus Linguistics

Conversation Analysis

Discourse Analysis

Grammaticalization

Chinese Linguistics

Jump in !!!! :D

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Haha I think most would get the joke.

However in case some fail to get what I mean by functional linguist, I meant pple who do linguistics from the functional perspective, as opposed to formalist or Chomskyian perspective.

Are there so little of us around? :cry:

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Well, the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. I consider myself a generative phonologist, but my approach is very functional. My personal view is that a very minimal or "soft" UG guides the emergence and self-organization of sound patterns, but on the other hand, I tend to focus on the UG aspect exclusively. I don't know what I am.

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I agree, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish absolutely, especially for phonologists.

I don't think functional linguists are opposed to having universals of languages. The point of contention is what this universal is based on. Functional linguists believes that while there may be commonalities between different languages, these emerges due to common sociological, anthropological or cognitive factors of the human species, whereas formalists think that the universal is a biological given, hidden within the brain in a so-called "black box". The formalists then attempts to use abstract mathematical formulations to describe the workings of this universal. The functionalist may also propose universals, but will link any such universal to a functional perspective (namely why such a universal is necessary).

Another aspect that functionalists and formalists may differ is on the status of empirical data. Functionalists will based their findings on actual data found in the field, or on huge corpora to validate their hypothesis. Formalists' hypothesis tend to be based primarily on native intuition of how things are being said, of what is wrong and what is right without much recourse to actual data. Any discrepancies between empirical data and the hypothesis are also explained away as a failure of "performance", and does not affect the UG, namely "competence". I think it is on empirical data that the phonologists differs.

In any case, I think most linguists will know which framework they are working under.

Still searching for comrades........ :cry:

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I'd consider myself a functionalist linguist. I'm primarily interested in the cognition/language interface and cognitive linguistics (particularly spatial and embodied work). That's what you get for taking mostly cog sci classes in undergrad, I guess! I also have a heavily computational background, so I'm a big proponent of empirical research, especially corpus linguistics. I think I'm not so much anti-UG (although I am admittedly skeptical of it) as falling on the interactionist side of the modularity debate.

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Formalists' hypothesis tend to be based primarily on native intuition of how things are being said, of what is wrong and what is right without much recourse to actual data. Any discrepancies between empirical data and the hypothesis are also explained away as a failure of "performance", and does not affect the UG, namely "competence". I think it is on empirical data that the phonologists differs.

I'm sorry but . . . what? Anyone who behaves as you've just described is not a linguist of any kind, because linguistics is a science, and that's not science at all. Where are you getting this?

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Though my statements are made in gross generalization, I believe they do reflect the majority of how proponents and graduate students of formal grammar work.

Below is just one of the many resources available explicating differences:

http://courses.essex.ac.uk/lg/lg554/FormalSocio.html

Copied from the website is the following, although it compares formal linguistics and sociolinguistics, the same can also be said for formal linguistics and functional linguistics in general (Note some of the points in bold):

Some problems with common formal linguistics approaches:

1) Often, "evidence in generative linguistics does not consist of observations of events, and therefore... does not [allow] law-like generalizations" (Carr) -

i.e. it does not fit the model of physical science which it claims to follow

2) Focuses on mental phenomena - e.g. sentences, speaker judgments - which are "purely speaker-internal - representations of linguistic realities, which are speaker-external" (Carr)

3) Focuses on the deducible competence of an idealized speaker/hearer, typically a monolingual 'native speaker' in a stable, homogeneous monolingual community, despite massive evidence that such speakers do not exist and would indeed be dysfunctional.

4) Limits itself to intuitive data on standard languages by educated, privileged speakers, thus perhaps reinforcing non-standard bias and the low status of non-standard speakers.

5) "Differences in data" studied are profound: Formal linguists study a much smaller subset of actual language used than sociolinguists.

6) "The selection of a data type has a profound influence on the range of phenomena which a model aims to represent and a theory aims to explain" (Schiffrin)

7) Lacks or fails to use an explicit methodology for collecting and handling data. Does not recognize that typical methods of doing so involve distortions of data due to speaker awareness of observation. Consequently, rarely attempts to correct distortions and improve data-handling methods.

8 ) Makes no systematic attempt to consider linguistic bias as a component of human language use that affects their data, methods, and the use to which formal analyses may be put - I.e. fails to include language bias as a human (social) fact within the discipline of studying human language.

9) Does not recognize the role of social factors in influencing the analyst's reasoning, e.g. specifically the social character of standard vs. non-standard languages, or power relations inherent between researcher and speaker that surface in language use.

10) Is itself biased as a field of study by the failure to promote non-standard languages as objects of study, and also to promote non-standard speakers as formal linguists within the profession.

11) In general, lacks a social critique of itself as a profession - of the relation of formal linguistic analysis to language speakers - and of the role of formal linguists vis-

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Well, to be fair, I'd say a number of those criticisms used to be more true of formal linguistics than they are now. For example, a lot of arguments for the poverty of the stimulus were based on intuited claims (i.e., that such-and-such construction is far too rare for children to acquire it and therefore it must be inherent, to grossly oversimplify). Then corpus linguistics came along and demonstrated that some of these constructs are far more common than previously claimed, and other empirical work showed that claims which held for English and Romance languages (i.e., the privileged languages Nel cites) failed when considering a more typologically diverse field. So that created a challenge for formal approaches: they need to be theoretically sound, but also rigorously tested. Of course, now we can all squabble over methodologies and the validity of experimental elicitation and corpus biases and so forth. :D

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Personally, I'm far more interested in experimental techniques and corpus-data than purely theoretical work, but I don't feel at all compelled to identify with the 'functional linguist' label. I believe that there's space for theoretical research as well; I mean, without Chomsky, would there even be a modern scientific field of linguistics?

I'm not sure there's much reason to draw the distinction between 'formal linguistics' and everything else anyway. The field is so multifaceted and interdisciplinary that the notion of trying to put up a fence in the middle of it strikes me as kind of senseless.

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Personally, I'm far more interested in experimental techniques and corpus-data than purely theoretical work, but I don't feel at all compelled to identify with the 'functional linguist' label. I believe that there's space for theoretical research as well; I mean, without Chomsky, would there even be a modern scientific field of linguistics?

I'm not sure there's much reason to draw the distinction between 'formal linguistics' and everything else anyway. The field is so multifaceted and interdisciplinary that the notion of trying to put up a fence in the middle of it strikes me as kind of senseless.

I do not think that the label of "functional linguist" excludes theoretical research. I believe the "functional" part does not mean "applied X without delving into the theory of it", it's more to do with emphasizing the empiricism within functional theory, as opposed to abstract mathematical formulation of grammar based on intuitive data of the formal school.

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I've always thought of functional vs. formal being merely different frameworks or models under which to study, and the minutia of each, such as data gathering and research methodology, remain the same. To use an analogy, one would be the geocentric model of the solar system, and one the heliocentric (I'm making no claim as to which is which! :D ). How the data fit into the model varies by which one (and which version of each) you labor under, but the basic methods, ie looking up at the sky, don't change. That's why I was so astronished to see you (or rather your source) attack the field methods of formalism, because I had never known they had a special set of techniques different from everyone else.

(Point #10, especially, just blew me away. Blew my head clean off!)

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Point #10 may be harsh, but I merely cited my sources.

However, in terms of data-gathering and empiricism, this is what Chomsky had to say in a 2004 interview:

"Corpus linguistics doesn

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Please give an example or description that shows how your methods differ from the ones described by Chomsky. And please don't go on the defensive; I'm not trying to attack your point, just understand it. I just read the "Cheating" thread and I'm not going to join something like that.

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There is also the point that all of formal linguistics is not Chomsky. He does not speak for the entire field. That's my experience, at least.

To the extent that formal linguistics can be characterized as mulling over the same 6 French or English sentences and using only your own intuitions to guide you in your analysis, I have heard functional linguistics characterized as nothing except counting tokens. Neither characterization comes close to the current truth of things.

For what it's worth, quite a few of the linguists working on languages that I am interested in are of a more functionalist bent - while it's not the framework that I would pursue in my own work, it's nevertheless interesting and something that I respect.

And that's all I've got. : )

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Please give an example or description that shows how your methods differ from the ones described by Chomsky. And please don't go on the defensive; I'm not trying to attack your point, just understand it. I just read the "Cheating" thread and I'm not going to join something like that.

Sure. I was accuse of something I did not do in the "Cheating" thread and I had to defend myself. I don't think that's going to happen here.

In the textbook samples of van Riemsdijk & Williams (1986), Introduction to the Theory of Grammar, the following were given as example of acceptable and non-acceptable sentences under generative grammar:

1. Who did Jo think said John saw him?

2. John I believe Sally said Bill believed Sue saw.

3. John wants very much for himself to win.

4. *What did Sally whisper that she had secretly read?

5. *The boys read Mary

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I think it would be helpful if you referred to the current state of research in the field, not to criticism (justified or not, I don't even see the point in debating that) from 20 years ago.

Under a functionalist approach, we would not first begin to form artificial sentences and then ask about its grammaticality, but to first gather a large enough database from ACTUAL instances found in everyday spoken and written discourse. These are then investigated for their commonalities and trends to formulate practices (i.e. grammar). I think the two methods can be basically characterized as the top-down approach (formal) versus the bottom-up approach (functional).

I have several reservations regarding corpus work, though I see its advantages and use it to collect examples for my papers, instead of making up my own, perhaps unnatural, examples. For one, in everyday speech, speakers tend to disambiguate their sentences in different ways in order to convey a more precise meaning to the hearer. Now, one of my main interests is scope ambiguities, and the fact that I see an ambiguous sentence used mainly (only?) on its prominent reading in corpora does not mean that I can rule out the possibility that the sentence also has a non-prominent reading. The everyday cooperative speaker, who seeks to assign one clear meaning to an utterance, has in this case the opposite agenda than I have (namely to detail every possible meaning the utterance may have).

This leads me to the bigger problem: corpus work only describes what IS there. It cannot explain what isn't there. But that's a large part of what I, as a formal linguist, aspire to do: I am concerned with explaining both constructions that occur in natural language and those that do not, and cannot, occur. I want to be able to differentiate between non-occuring cases of grammatical sentences (say, on their less-prominent reading) and non-occuring cases of non-grammatical sentences. I want to be able to explain and predict those facts. Drawing conclusions from data you find in corpora alone won't give you that - you have to assume some kind of theory to explain facts you can't "see". I don't think that this is such a bad concequence as you make it out to be. As in every other science, your theories must be well motivated and subject the review and critique of your peers. If your theory is disproved by counter evidence, obviously you would have to work on improving it. But it's not inately wrong just because you don't see it.

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I think it would be helpful if you referred to the current state of research in the field, not to criticism (justified or not, I don't even see the point in debating that) from 20 years ago.

You're right, as I said before, I'm not familiar with current trends in formal linguistics and would be glad to know more about how things work now. The criticisms cited, however, are not outdated. Please refer to previous posts on similar criticisms made more recently by scholars in the field. Nevertheless I am having trouble seeing why it's pointless to debate upon justified criticism.

I have several reservations regarding corpus work, though I see its advantages and use it to collect examples for my papers, instead of making up my own, perhaps unnatural, examples. For one, in everyday speech, speakers tend to disambiguate their sentences in different ways in order to convey a more precise meaning to the hearer. Now, one of my main interests is scope ambiguities, and the fact that I see an ambiguous sentence used mainly (only?) on its prominent reading in corpora does not mean that I can rule out the possibility that the sentence also has a non-prominent reading. The everyday cooperative speaker, who seeks to assign one clear meaning to an utterance, has in this case the opposite agenda than I have (namely to detail every possible meaning the utterance may have).

The investigation of an utterance taking out of it natural contextualized environment for additional meaning may have value in its own right. However, from the perspective of a few functional disciplines (such as CA and DA), the meaning of an utterance is not unilaterally embedded within its form but also in concert with its sequential environment (meaning what it is in response to), its recipient-designedness (meaning how a particular recipient may only allow a single reading of the utterance) and other such contextual cues.

From this perspective, the de-contextualized utterance is, indeed, meaningless, in the sense it serves no purpose or function other than an object for the analyst to play with.

This leads me to the bigger problem: corpus work only describes what IS there. It cannot explain what isn't there. But that's a large part of what I, as a formal linguist, aspire to do: I am concerned with explaining both constructions that occur in natural language and those that do not, and cannot, occur. I want to be able to differentiate between non-occuring cases of grammatical sentences (say, on their less-prominent reading) and non-occuring cases of non-grammatical sentences. I want to be able to explain and predict those facts. Drawing conclusions from data you find in corpora alone won't give you that - you have to assume some kind of theory to explain facts you can't "see". I don't think that this is such a bad concequence as you make it out to be. As in every other science, your theories must be well motivated and subject the review and critique of your peers. If your theory is disproved by counter evidence, obviously you would have to work on improving it. But it's not inately wrong just because you don't see it.

I think you've just very concisely summarized the differences (or functionalists' criticism) of the fields. There is the underlying premise that "what isn't there" is a "fact you can't see", even though it "cannot occur", it can be "predicted"? Has much of the formalist's theories been disproved by counter evidence? My limited knowledge on all the theories of formal linguistics prevents me from giving any warranted comments. But one contribution of corpus linguistics has been the findings that much of what formal linguists debate about does not even occur in actual everyday context (For one such reading, refer to Hongyin Tao & Charles Meyer (2006) "Gapped coordinations in English: Form, usage and implications for linguistics theory"). Though it may not be innately wrong because you don't see something, any such theories of what you don't see have to be grounded in the observable extrapolated results (things you can see) of the very same theory. For example, though we can't see gravity, the theory of gravity and it's mathematical formulation has proven reliable, and more importantly useful, in a myriad number of ways. However, from what I know, much of what is theorized in formal linguistics has yet to be grounded in observable results (extrapolated or not). I am not informed enough to say if formal linguistics has began to address this issue.

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I'm not sure there's much reason to draw the distinction between 'formal linguistics' and everything else anyway. The field is so multifaceted and interdisciplinary that the notion of trying to put up a fence in the middle of it strikes me as kind of senseless.

I agree. And I was getting the sense that the general trend of the formal linguistics discipline is towards being more "functional" in nature nowadays, no?

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Since I don't want to get dragged into a long debate with you addressing half sentences and phrases I wrote out of context and referring me to reading materials, I'll try to keep this as brief as possible and will refrain from answering again (you will have to forgive me for not quoting entire passages. The post got too long and confused to read that way. Rest assured I am addressing entire passages and not only the sentence I quote, which is only meant to signal what paragraph I'm referring to) .

Nevertheless I am having trouble seeing why it's pointless to debate upon justified criticism.

I don't know if it's justified or not. The criticism you cite doesn't represent the field as I know it, and it's outdated. Therefore, even if we were to conclude our discussion with you winning every point, how will that forward our discussion of what's happening in the field right now? As lingapplicant and psycholinguist have said, the field seems to be moving in what I think you would call a "functional" direction, so why make rigid distinctions between 'formal' and 'functional' linguistics?

From this perspective, the de-contextualized utterance is, indeed, meaningless, in the sense it serves no purpose or function other than an object for the analyst to play with.

Well, then, we can debate what is meaningful or meaningless in the study of language and for what ends. I don't believe research has to have a purpose, other than to better our understanding of whichever phenomenon we're studying. You may think studying an utterance out of context serves no function. I think it furthers our understanding of the way this utterance behaves. It shows us additional meanings that it can express, and, while you may not like this, it betters our understanding of what a certain utterance *cannot* express, regardless of manipulation of context, etc. It gives us insight into the breadth of expression of a certain utterance, but also into it's limitations.

I think you've just very concisely summarized the differences (or functionalists' criticism) of the fields. There is the underlying premise that "what isn't there" is a "fact you can't see", even though it "cannot occur", it can be "predicted"?

You work on corpora. Assume you have mined bountiful data from various corpora but have no evidence a certain construction ever occurs. You and dozens of informants judge sentences containing it malformed. I'd consider it then a fact that this construction is ungrammatical, would like to make the prediction that you won't find it occurring in any later search, and would like to give an explanation of why this is so (ideally by making one simple generalization). You may easily disprove my thesis by showing me new evidence that this construction does occur somewhere, and that will surely prompt me to re-think my analysis. In the absence of such proof, I think the stronger analysis is the one that predicts more facts -- both about occurring and non-occurring constructions in the language. Your world is random, you never know when you might encounter something you've never seen before. Mine is orderly, at the expense of making certain generalizations you have refrained from making, but I am now much more confident about the way my world is structured.

Though it may not be innately wrong because you don't see something, any such theories of what you don't see have to be grounded in the observable extrapolated results (things you can see) of the very same theory.

Well, we don't just make up these generalizations in our feverish dreams--of course we base them on observable facts (e.g., such-and-such is a non-occurring utterance). Sometimes it's more economical to draw a conclusion from absent occurrences in the data to what you do see. It might allow you to make one generalization of what is disallowed, and derive from this different cases of forms that are allowed, that you would otherwise fail to generalize over with one rule. It allows us to order our universe in a deeper way than just observing things that are on the surface. To use your example, you can't see gravity, but you certainly can feel its effects. The same goes for our generalizations into things you can't see. We make them in order to better explain the things we do see.

This said, I will now cease and desist, stop procrastinating and go work on my thesis :D .

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With that you're objecting to the underlying premise of formalism, not its methods. The premise is that there is an underlying universal grammar that, once it's fully understood, will predict all possible utterances in all possible languages. Give the title of this topic, you probably think that's a foolish premise. But engage in an intellectual game for a moment -- support the other side. Given some corpus for language X, how would you develop an idea of what's NOT possible in that language, and what IS possible, but NOT REPRESENTED in the corpus?

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Have been busy with a paper........

Hi chillofrito! Wacky maybe, but highly informative, I like it anyway. Why don't you tell us what you do and your contribution to this topic.

To fuzzylogician:

I'm not trying to win points here or start a flame-war, I thought I should say that outright now. I'm just looking for some sort of frank assessment on the different criticism of the fields and have a well-meaning discussion about its validity. I'm happy to hear that formalism is moving towards a more functionalist perspective and eagerly anticipate to see a change in methodology and premise.

On that note, I agree that there is a primary, albeit underlying, distinction between formalism and functionalism, and that is as you mentioned, if research should have a purpose. We do think that research should serve a higher purpose. However, I cannot agree with your assumption that functionalism does not make predictions and therefore serves a random world. This is not a field purely built to disprove formalism, it has a basic premise that linguistic practices are the product of external factors, and hence its predictions are grounded on how these external factors will continue to influence language practices. It is structured in that way. The point of contention is HOW and WHAT sort of predictions are made in formalism. Namely in formalism (or ex-formalism), predictions are made through testing mathematical formulations on artificially constructed sentences (HOW) to say what amazingly cannot be found in the real world is possible, or what is sometimes frequently found in the real world as wrong or "ungrammatical" (WHAT).

Nevertheless your final paragraph sounds very empirical "we base them on observable facts (e.g., such-and-such is a non-occurring utterance)", and a point I agree on. This is something functionalist do as well. We do not only look at what is there, but when someone makes a construction we haven't seen before, we can say "hey, that's not available in our data and hence probably not true." I think we have a problem only when formalist makes a claim on a rule-based generalization and say that just because it's not seen in authentic data doesn't mean it does not exist, that it's only a problem with performance not competence.

To Dinali:

On that note, I think it links to Dinali's point on premise and methodology. My point is that they are not mutually independent. Your premise has an influence on how you craft your methodology. For example, because the premise of formalism (ex-formalism?) is that something that cannot be seen, or don't even occur, in authentic language data is nevertheless "possible" and real, so its methodology does not place a premium on empiricism. Though the premise may not be wrong (it may not be right either), the methodology developed out of this premise has generated rule-based generalization not grounded in empiricism but on intuition. Then using these rules, formalist say such-and-such a sentence is possible or well-formed and vice versa, but when functionalist points out that it's not found or abundantly found in the corpus, formalist attributes this to either lack of performance or say that external pragmatic factors has rendered it a non-occurring case of a "possible" sentence. IF this is the case, what exactly are formal linguists predicting?

Why put up the fence on a field so interdisciplinary? I agree even in functional linguistics, the disciplines are so varied (cognitive linguistics, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, anthropological linguistics, corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, conversation analysis etc.) that they may not share every notion and concerns. However, it is on the above two dimensions: premise and methodology, that forms a foundational and uncompromising distinction that determines, for lack of a less provocative word (provide me with one please), acceptable scholarship.

To put everything in perspective, this debate on formalism versus functionalism has been going on for a long time (not here in a forum but between established academics). The longevity of this debate attest to why its an uncompromising "fence" and also that we're not going to see eye to eye on this. Predictably, we're going to have to agree to disagree. However, I think it's good that we're able to put up our respective side of the picture and perhaps leave judgement to people not on either sides of the camp.

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. . . even in functional linguistics, the disciplines are so varied (cognitive linguistics . . .

Haha!! See, I would have thought you'd put cog on the formal side of the fence! Them lines are blurry.

Then using these rules, formalist say such-and-such a sentence is possible or well-formed and vice versa, but when functionalist points out that it's not found or abundantly found in the corpus, formalist attributes this to either lack of performance or say that external pragmatic factors has rendered it a non-occurring case of a "possible" sentence. IF this is the case, what exactly are formal linguists predicting?

This clears it up for me. I think the problem is the use of the word "possible." When I said possible sentence, I meant "actually possible, as in, someone might say it tomorrow but no one's around with a notebook or DAT recorder to add it to the corpus;" not theoretically possible, but realistically possible. You have to admit that there's no such thing as a complete corpus, which means that there are things people have said that are not attested to in data. Hypothetically, here's a corpus:

1. I see a ship.

2. I saw a ship.

3. I see a dog

4. I saw a dog.

5. I see a cat.

Is "I saw a cat" an allowed sentence? It's not attested to in the corpus. A formalist is going to take the existing data, construct a paradigm, and hypothesize that "I saw a cat" is possible. If there are native speakers alive and available, one can make an experiment. The experiment is as simple as asking "Hey, can you say 'I saw a cat?'" The native speaker renders his or her, yes, intution on the grammaticality of the phrase. And really, what is a corpus but a large collection of sentences that native speakers have intuitively judged grammatical (by saying them aloud)?

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