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Publication . Part of book or chapter of book . 2008

Parametric versus functional explanations of syntactic universals

Martin Haspelmath;
Open Access
Published: 24 May 2008
Publisher: Zenodo
This paper compares the generative principles-and-parameters approach to explaining syntactic universals to the functional-typological approach and also discusses the intermediate approach of Optimality Theory. It identifies some fundamental differences between generative parametric explanations and functional explanations. Most importantly, generative explanations assume that cross-linguistic generalizations are due to the innate Universal Grammar, whereas functional explanations assume that language structure can be influenced by regularities of language use through language change. Despite these differences, both approaches to cross-linguistic similarities and differences seem to be guided by a similar vision: That the superficial structural diversity of languages can be reduced to a few basic patterns once one digs below the surface (macroparameters or holistic types). Unfortunately, the evidence for such reductionist constructs has never been very good, so more recently both generativists and functionalists have shifted their interests away from these ambitious goals. However, I argue that there is one type of cross-linguistic generalization for which there is very good empirical evidence: intra-domain universals relating to prominence scales, most of which are straightforwardly explained functionally in terms of processing difficulty. 1. Introduction: the relevance of observable universals Many generative and functional linguists share a primary interest in understanding structural similarities and differences between languages. It is clear that the observed language structures represent only a tiny fraction of the logically possible structures, and for a whole range of syntactic domains linguists have a good initial idea of what the limits on structural variation (i.e. the syntactic universals) are. But why should languages be limited in these particular ways in choosing their structures? Generative and functional linguists have given very different answers to this question, but these answers are rarely compared to each other, and the differences in the methodological foundations of the two research programmes are not well understood by most linguists. The present paper aims to elucidate this situation. I will not attempt to hide my personal preference for the functional approach, but I will highlight strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. I should note at the outset that the goal of explaining language universals is not usually taken as the main goal of generative research. The following quotation is typical:
Subjects by Vocabulary

Microsoft Academic Graph classification: Language change Optimality theory Cognitive science Generative grammar Problem of universals Computer science Linguistics Universal grammar Functional approach Linguistic universal Generative science


syntactic parameter, language typology, generative syntax, functional explanation

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Part of book or chapter of book . 2008
Providers: ZENODO