Re: Functional Grammar

From: Rod Decker (
Date: Mon Mar 30 1998 - 07:20:26 EST

Warning: response from a "non-linguist" follows!

>pwiles wrote:
>> Is anyone aware of any works that seek to treat Koine Greek from a
>> functional grammar point of view??
>This is a question worth answering, is it not?
>First of all, could some one on the list help me by defining in a neat and
>concise fashion what a functional approach to grammar is. Also, how would a
>functional approach to grammar be recognized in a text book or reference

I wrote the following partial summary for other purposes (I've tried to
adapt some of the f.n.s & a chart to ASCII):

Less known in the United States, the work of J. R. Firth (1890-1960) has
been more influential in Britain where his concepts have become known as
the London School. Firth's own work was primarily in the areas of phonology
and semantics.<1> He emphasized the system of choices that a speaker makes
between available alternatives. Of greater relevance to the present study
is the application of Firth's analysis to the area of syntax. This has been
developed by Michael Halliday (b. 1925) and is known as systemic grammar or
as systemic, functional linguistics. This is the theoretical foundation of
Porter's aspect theory. It is well beyond the scope of this dissertation to
explore the theory in detail. Porter provides a summary of the salient
points as part of his introduction.<2> The brief sketch included in the
following paragraph is intended to indicate, from the perspective of NT
exegesis, the direction and character of the system and some of its
concerns pertinent to this dissertation rather than to expound it.

Porter defines systemic linguistics as "a functional paradigm [that]
defines language in terms of its use as an instrument or tool for
communication and social interaction." <PVA, 7> This "paradigm" refers to
the evaluation of independent choices between which the speaker/writer
chooses to convey his meaning. The linguist's goal is to explicate those
choices to determine the speaker's meaning. Lack of a choice available to
the speaker results in lack of significance at that point.<3> A distinction
is to be made between form and function in a language. Form refers to the
morphology of a word, function to that word's use in a sentence.
Infinitive, e.g., is a formal category that is identified by the infinitive
morpheme added to the stem, but that form may function in several ways in a
sentence, including subject, object, etc. Also distinguished in systemic
linguistics are semantics and pragmatics. Semantics refers to the meaning
of the form (whether a specific lexical item or a grammatical category such
as aorist). Pragmatics is the study of the meaning of a form as it is used
in a particular context. <4>

Figure 1 summarizes some of the key differences between generative grammar
(which places greater emphasis on form) and systemic linguistics (which
places greater emphasis on function).

Fig. 1. Differences Between Formal and Functional Linguistics <The chart
above has been constructed to summarize the explanations of Porter,
"Studying Ancient Languages," 155-6.>

                 *Formal models* *Functional models*

Language defined A set of sentences to An instrument of
in terms of: be generated social interaction

Primary function
of language: Expression of thoughts Communication

Primary focus Competence in the use of Communicative competence
of analysis: (= capacity to use) of language use in
                  language actual social settings

Language Innate to the human Explainable in relation
universals: being, a category of to communicative purposes
                  the mind and actual language usage,
                                             as well as biological and
                                             psychological factors

Linguistic Discrete and independent Pragmatics is the over-
categories & hierarchical relations riding category which
their inter- among syntax, semantics, encompasses semantics &
relationship: and pragmatics syntax

It is worth noting at this point that the various schools of linguistics
are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Although some parts of them may be
judged invalid and therefore not usable, it may well be the case that a
particular school has developed a system in one area of linguistics that
best handles a particular feature of language in general or of an
individual language in particular. An eclectic approach is therefore an
option.<5> Porter has chosen systemic linguistics as the model best suited
for analyzing the Greek verbal system. <6>

"PVA" = Porter's *Verbal Aspect*

<1> Firth's phonetics is of greatest value; it is thought by some that his
semantics has little of value to offer (Sampson, Schools of Linguistics,
227). Semantics is used by Sampson in the more narrow sense of the meaning
of individual lexical items. This contrasts with Porter's broader use (see
below) to refer to the meaning of grammatical features such as verb forms.

<2> PVA, 7-16. The terse summary of systemic linguistics in the paragraphs
above follows Porter's discussion. For broader summaries (Porter focuses on
those elements most directly related to verbal aspect), see J. R. Martin,
"Systemic Grammar," IEL, 4:120-2 and Sampson, Schools of Linguistics,
212-35. Carson suggests that Porter's aspect theory is probably not
dependent on the linguistic model of systemic linguistics; i.e, it is
compatible with other linguistic models as well ("Introduction," 23-4; see
also Silva, "A Response to Fanning and Porter on Verbal Aspect," Biblical
Greek Language and Linguistics, ed. S. Porter and D. Carson, JSNTSup 80:77
n. 1).

<3> For example, it is not significant that a speaker "selects"
imperfective aspect for the verb EIMI since he has no other choice;
perfective forms of EIMI do not exist in the language. As Porter succinctly
states it, "an element is only meaningful if it is defined wholly in terms
of other elements. A given linguistic phenomenon that is wholly
predetermined offers little for a discussion of meaning" (PVA, 12)

<4> For an evaluation of this contextual emphasis as it relates to meaning,
see J. Lyons, "Firth's Theory of 'Meaning,'" in In Memory of J. R. Firth,
ed. C. Bazell, et al., 288-302. M. Olsen provides one of the best, concise
distinctions between semantics and pragmatics: "Semantics is the
'uncancelable' meaning of a word/sentence/grammtical form, the meaning it
must have, in each context of use. Pragmatics refers to the aspects of
meaning that are cancelable (without contradiction) and reinforceable
(without redundancy), credit Grice. These aspects of meaning depend on
context interacting with the semantics" (B-Greek post, 5 August 97, s.v.,
"semantics vs. pragmatics" <http://>; she develops this
distinction more fully in her dissertation: "Model," 21-29). See also
B. Comrie, Tense, CTL, 23. This is an important distinction for the
following chapters of the dissertation. A related term is implicature: what
may be implied regarding the meaning of a form. Reference may thus be made
to pragmatic implicature, or more specifically to the point of this study,
temporal implicature-what may be implied about the temporal reference of a
particular form in a particular context.

<5> "Though there is some question within the hard sciences about the
coexistence of competing models..., it is reasonable to believe that in the
humanities, although certain models may appear to be better suited to
particular purposes than others, models can co-exist" (PVA, 5). Porter also
implies this in his article "Studying Ancient Languages," 158. C. Bache
explicitly endoreses a composite model that includes elements from a wide
variety of linguistic theories (The Study of Aspect, Tense and Action,
9-14). See also W. Bodine, "How Linguists Study Syntax," 101 n. 92.

<6> Sampson, writing as a descriptivist, judges that systemic linguistics
is far more successful as a system than generative grammar and has a good
deal to offer (particularly in phonology and syntax, but not in semantics).
He is not optimistic, however, that it will prevail over the domination of
Chomsky's system. In his own memorable words, this is because "the
discipline of linguistics seems to be peopled largely by intellectual
Brahmanists, who evaluate ideas in terms of ancestry rather than intrinsic
worth; and, nowadays, the proper caste to belong to is American" (Schools
of Linguistics, 235). He continues, somewhat sarcastically, that "the most
half-baked idea from MIT [which is where Chomsky teaches] is taken
seriously, even if it has been anticipated by far more solid work done in
the 'wrong' places; the latter is not rejected, just ignored.... Against
such powerful magic, mere common sense...and meticulous scholarship (in
which it compares favorably, to say the least, with the movement that has
eclipsed it) are considerations that seem to count for disappointingly


 Rodney J. Decker Baptist Bible Seminary
 Asst. Prof./NT P O Box 800 Clarks Summit PA 18411

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