What Is Linguistic Functionalism?

In linguistics, functionalism can refer to any one of various approaches to the study of grammatical descriptions and processes that consider the purposes to which language is put and the contexts in which language occurs. Also called functional linguistics. Contrast with Chomskyan linguistics.

Christopher Butler notes that "there is a strong consensus among functionalists that the linguistic system is not self-contained, and so autonomous from external factors, but is shaped by them" (The Dynamics of Language Use, 2005).

As discussed below, functionalism is generally viewed as an alternative to formalist approaches to the study of language.

Examples and Observations

  • The starting point for functionalists is the view that language is first and foremost an instrument for communication between human beings, and that this fact is central in explaining why languages are as they are. This orientation certainly corresponds to the lay person's view of what language is. Ask any beginner in linguistics, who has not yet been exposed to formal approaches, what a language is, and you are likely to be told that it is something that allows human beings to communicate with one another. Indeed, students are often surprised to learn that the most influential linguist of the second half of the twentieth century claims that:
    Human language is a system for free expression of thought, essentially independent of stimulus control, need-satisfaction or instrumental purpose. ([Noam] Chomsky 1980:239)
    Clearly, the linguistic scholar, like the physical or natural scientist, need not and arguably should not base his or her work on popular views of natural phenomena; however, in this case the popular view is based on very solid foundations, in that most of us spend a considerable proportion of our waking hours using language for the purpose of communicating with our fellow human beings."
    (Christopher S. Butler, Structure and Function: Approaches to the Simplex Clause. John Benjamins, 2003)

    Halliday vs. Chomsky

    • "[M.A.K.] Halliday's theory of language is organized around two very basic and common-sense observations which immediately set him apart from the other truly great twentieth-century linguist, Noam Chomsky . . .; namely, that language is part of the social semiotic; and that people talk to each other. Halliday's theory of language is part of an overall theory of social interaction, and from such a perspective it is obvious that a language must be seen as more than a set of sentences, as it is for Chomsky. Rather, the language will be seen as a text, or discourse--the exchange of meanings in interpersonal contexts. The creativity of language is therefore a grammar of meaningful choices rather than of formal rules." (Kirsten Malmkjær, "Functional Linguistics." The Linguistics Encyclopedia, ed. by Kirsten Malmkjær. Routledge, 1995)

      Formalism and Functionalism

      • "The terms 'Formalism' and 'Functionalism,' although generally accepted as designations of two different approaches within linguistics, are not entirely adequate, since they embody two different kinds of opposition.
      • "The first opposition concerns the basic view of language adopted by linguistic theories, where, roughly speaking, one either views grammar as an autonomous structural system or views grammar primarily as an instrument of social interaction. Theories taking these two views of grammar may be called 'autonomous' and 'functional,' respectively.
      • "The second opposition is of a quite different nature. Some linguistic theories have the explicit aim of constructing a formal representational system, whereas other approaches do not. Theories of these two types may be called 'formalizing' and 'non-formalizing,' respectively."(Kees Hengeveld, "Formalizing Functionally." Functionalism and Formalism in Linguistics: Case Studies, ed. by Mike Darnell. John Benjamins, 1999)

      Role-and-Reference Grammar (RRG) and Systemic Linguistics (SL)

      • "There are very many functionalist approaches which have been put forward, and they are often very different from one another. Two prominent ones are Role-and-Reference Grammar (RRG), developed by William Foley and Robert Van Valin, and Systemic Linguistics (SL), developed by Michael Halliday. RRG approaches linguistic description by asking what communicative purposes need to be served and what grammatical devices are available to serve them. SL is chiefly interested in examining the structure of a large linguistic unit--a text or a discourse--and it attempts to integrate a great deal of structural information with other information (social information, for example) in the hope of constructing a coherent account of what speakers are doing.
      • "Functionalist approaches have proved fruitful, but they are usually hard to formalize, and they often work with 'patterns,' 'preferences,' 'tendencies,' and 'choices,' in place of the explicit rules preferred by non-functional linguists." (Robert Lawrence Trask and Peter Stockwell, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2007)