Formalism and Functionalism in Linguistics: The Engineer and the Collector, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Formalism and Functionalism in Linguistics

The Engineer and the Collector, 1st Edition

By Margaret Thomas


112 pages

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Hardback: 9781138316119
pub: 2019-08-14
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This volume is a concise introduction to the lively ongoing debate between formalist and functionalist approaches to the study of language. The book grounds its comparisons between the two in both historical and contemporary contexts where, broadly speaking, formalists’ focus on structural relationships and idealized linguistic data contrasts with functionalists’ commitment to analyzing real language used as a communicative tool. The book highlights key sub-varieties, proponents, and critiques of each respective approach. It concludes by comparing formalist versus functionalist contributions in three domains of linguistic research: in the analysis of specific grammatical constructions; in the study of language acquisition; and in interdisciplinary research on the origins of language. Taken together, the volume opens insight an into important tension in linguistic theory, and provides students and scholars with a more nuanced understanding of the structure of the discipline of modern linguistics.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents



Chapter 1 Defining ‘formalism’ and ‘functionalism’

1.1 Starting out

1.2 Defining the terms

1.3 The engineer and the collector14. Two examples

1.5 On the architecture of formalism versus functionalism


Chapter 2 Background to the current debate

2.1 Is there a starting point?

2.2 Before the twentieth century

2.3 Twentieth-century formalist linguistics to 1950

2.4 Twentieth-century functionalism from the Prague Circle to Pike

2.5 Why the background matters


Chapter 3 Contemporary formalist linguistics

3.1 The internal structure of modern formalism

3.2 What makes modern formalism formalist?

3.2.1 Early transformational grammar

3.2.2 Principles and parameters

3.2.3 The Minimalist Program

3.2.4 The common formalist character of generative grammar

3.3 Diversity within contemporary formalism


Chapter 4 Contemporary functionalist linguistics

4.1 The internal structure of modern functionalism

4.2 The scope of modern of functionalism

4.2.1 Systemic functional linguistics

4.2.2 Langacker’s cognitive grammar

4.2.3 Talmy Givón

4.3 Taxonomies of modern functionalist linguistics

4.4 Graphic style in modern formalism and functionalism


Chapter 5 Formalism and functionalism in practice

5.1 Applying formalism and functionalism

5.2 In the analysis of syntactic phenomena

5.2.1 Word order

5.2.2 Transitivity

5.3 In conceptualization and study of child language learning

5.4 In debate about the origin of human language

5.5 Gaps, overlap, and combat between formalism and functionalism


Chapter 6 Formalism and functionalism juxtaposed

6.1 Formalism and functionalism in silhouette

6.2 Face to face

6.2.1 In conversation

6.2.2 How formal is functionalism?

6.2.3 How functionalist is formalism?

6.3 Side by side

6.3.1 Explanation

6.3.2 (Non)complementarity

6.4 Back to back


Chapter 7 Conclusion

7.1 Engineers and collectors, revisited

7.2 Portrait of a linguistic mindset

7.3 Formalism and functionalism face the world online


Appendix Characteristics of formalism versus functionalism


About the Author

Margaret Thomas is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures at Boston College, USA.

About the Series

Routledge Focus on Linguistics

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Linguistics / General