Re: Functional Grammar

From: Ronald Ross (
Date: Mon Mar 30 1998 - 08:14:08 EST

Functional grammar is distinct from, say, generative grammar in that
it has a much broader view of language. Generative grammar is
interested purely in abstract grammar and is context free.
Functional grammar is interested in language as a communicative
system and therefore has room for context and its impact on
meaning. Generative grammar is true to its Saussurean roots in
stressing the arbitrariness of constructions. Functional grammar
assumes that language is similar to an organism in that its parts
were designed to do a specific function. Therefore, there is a non
arbitrary relationship between form and function. So functionalists
are interested in the iconicity of linguistic structure. For
example, all languages have ways of expressing causation, and this
can be done three different ways: lexically, morphologically and
analytically (i.e. periphrastically). English (and Greek as far as
I know) only makes use of lexical and periphriasitc causatives. An
example of a lexical causative would be "kill", as the causative of
"die". "Kill" means to "make die". Now many functionalists assume
that the shorter the form of the causative, the more direct is the
causation. So if we say "Pete killed Jake" we imagine him shooting
him or some such thing. But if we say "Pete caused Jake to die" we
imagine some less direct participation on the part of Pete. Maybe
he hired somebody else to do it. Or if Pete himself caused the
effect, maybe he wasn't present when death occured (he used a time
bomb or something). Languages that make use of all three kinds of
causatives can establish three different degrees of "closeness"
between initial causa and the effect. So the distance between the
linguistic expression of cause and effect would represent iconically
the "distance" in time or space between the actual cause and its
effect. There are very many examples of iconic relationships between
form and function. Functionalists also assume that whatever
structure is arbitrary in language today was not at some previous
point in the language's history.

There is much more to say, but maybe this will give you some idea of
the theoretical differences between the two major approaches to
language today. Personally, I think that functionalism has a great
deal to offer students of biblical Greek precisely because of its
broader, more inclusive view of language. Not that generative
grammer doesn't have much to offer, but for people who are
interested primarily in *text*, where things like context, etc.
matter, functionalism (and there are many different approaches)
seems like an attractive alternative.

Ron Ross
Department of Linguistics
University ofCostaRica
UBS Consultant

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