chapter  1
38 Pages

Explanation in linguistics

One of the fundamental goals of research in linguistics is the explanation of structural regularities which are apparently exhibited by all languages or a significant number or them. Workers in the field adopt various approaches in their pursuit of this goal, depending on a number of factors, including the academic discipline with which they identify, their speciality within that discipline, and their view of the nature of the linguistic beast. One approach, often called formal (or autonomous, linguistic-internal) explanation, is particularly associated with theorists working on generative grammar, and has become very influential especially since the publication of Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Chomsky 1965). The major alternative approach, generally termed functional (or interactive, external) explanation, is favoured by a disparate group of general linguists, cognitive psychologists and philosophers working before Chomsky's impact was felt and, also, reacting to it once it became established. The neat label functional as foil to the formal approach is, in fact, an over-simplifying abbreviation for a broad range of perspectives on explanation covering numerous schools and paradigms; the umbrella term is justified in that it unites work exhibiting at least two factors in common: (i) an emphasis on the subordination of form to function, and hence, (ii) a rejection of Chomsky's perspective. In this chapter I introduce the basic characteristics of the two approaches (sections 1.1 and 1.3) and consider examples of the types of explanation offered, before examining some drawbacks and deficiencies of each (sections 1.2 and 1.4). I ultimately propose a unified approach which emphasises the role of function, but also incorporates fundamental features of the formal approach. This unified approach is introduced in section 1.5.