I'm trying to really understand the difference between linguistic functionalism and formalism, but I can't find any good concrete examples of either.

From what I can tell, functionalism is a sort of lower-level analysis of language, while formalism takes a high-level, idealistic approach. But if I were asked the question: "Is theory X an example of formalism or functionalism?", I wouldn't really know how to answer.

Is there a simple example of a functional theory vs. a formal one?

2 Answers 2


It's hard to nail down a scientific difference between functionalist and formalist approaches, because the goals and domains of investigation are usually disjoint. If you want some opposite ends of the spectrum, you could compare David Stampe's dissertation on Natural Phonology with this paper. The main question is whether there is an autonomous computational "thing" that we call a grammar. A formalist will say yes, and studies the nature of that computational system. While generativists additionally claim that this computational object is an aspect of the mind, there are non-generativist formalists (certain HPSG practicioners, for example) who make no such claim about the mind, i.e. they just look at the system as a Platonic abstraction. A functionalist, on the other hand, cannot be a Platonist (of course, I may now learn that somehow that has actually happened).

A functionalist focuses on why language behavior is the way it is, attempting to reduce language facts to being a result of more general cognitive properties. Some functionalists don't care if there is a small autonomous faculty for grammatical computation, they are just uninterested -- others (e.g. Robert Port, see his Language paper "Against Formal Phonology") are opposed to the concept. Formalists are less interested in functional (non-grammatical) aspects -- they don't deny that there are non-grammatical aspects to language, they are just focused on understanding the grammar part of language. So good formalists have to know how to weed out the functional chaff, and unfortunately, sometimes that doesn't happen and you end up with "formal" theories that basically reify functional expectations (for instance, SPE introduced a formal mechanism of "markedness" into phonology, which reifies various phonetically-based functional tendencies).

Fritz Newmeyer is well-known for his investigations into formalism vs. functionalism, and one would be well-served by reading most of what he has written.

  • Thanks for the comprehensive answer! It sounds a little like the psychology/neuroscience divide, where psychologists envision an abstract mind and neuroscientists study the brain as a computational machine. Mar 30, 2015 at 16:39
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    And Martin Haspelmath's paper "Why can't we talk to each other?" does a nice review of Newmeyer's Language Form and Language Function. Mar 31, 2015 at 22:50

Perhaps a better way to approach the difference between functionalist and formalist approaches would be to explore the history and personalities involved.

In principle, there's no opposition between functionalism and formalism. Units of language are used for certain functions and these functions can be described using formal methods. The question really is what are those functions and what are the formalisms used.

Historically, functionalism was closely associated with the Prague structuralist school of linguistics (known as the Prague Circle of Linguistics - full disclosure, I'm a member). The functionalist theme developed in the 1930s (later put into in opposition to the functionalism of the Copenhagen school approach of Hjelmslev who understood function more in the mathematical sense). The Prague school was revived in the 1960s and tried to blend functionalist methods into the then increasingly popular formalist approach (inspired for instance by formal semantics of people like Montague).

Formalism, on the other hand, is associated with Chomsky (although there were others and even earlier schools) who developed mathematical theories of the combinatorics of grammar combined with the claim that they are facts of language without any reference to their function. But other formal approached to language were also being developed about the same time. I already mentioned Montague, but there was also Bar-Hillel with his categorial grammar. Both of these were much more compatible with functionalist approaches in that they are concerned with formalizing language units that are put to real uses.

Today, functionalism is most closely associated with the British Firthian school of linguistics - it's most famous proponent being MAK Haliday (it is now particularly popular in Australia and New Zealand). This school had the most impact on wide areas of language description from text and discourse analysis to pedagogic grammar (most foreign language textbooks and grammars will be beholden to some version of functionalism). Most of the work on language corpora has come out of the functionalist tradition (in the broadest sense). I think Haliday's three meta functions of language: 1. Ideational, 2. Interpersonal and 3. Textual are still the best delineation of what dimensions a linguistic theory needs to account for.

Ultimately, the difference between formalist and functionalist linguistics is not the irreconcilable rift between linguistic theories it is thought of as. I'd suggest any one linguistic theory needs to be judged on a range of issues and whether it is labelled or labels itself as functionalist or formalist, is probably not that important.

  • In the US at least, functionalism is not strongly associated with Firth — few American linguists are familiar with his work. Even Halliday is not cited as a founding figure. In its place, from what I can tell, people seem to link functionalism and the whole tradition of structuralism and documentation as exemplified (initially) by the Americanist tradition (Sapir, Kroeber, etc).
    – pat
    Jan 28, 2017 at 16:05

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