Keynotes from the International Conference on Explanation and Prediction in Linguistics (CEP): Formalist and Functionalist Approaches

Heidelberg, February 13th and 14th, 2019

by Peter Kosta (Volume editor) Katrin Schlund (Volume editor)
©2021 Conference proceedings 234 Pages


Scientific insight is obtained through the processes of description, explanation, and prediction. Yet grammatical theory has seen a major divide regarding not only the methods of data eliciting and the kinds of data evaluated, but also with respect to the interpretation of these data, including the very notions of explanation and prediction themselves.
The editors of the volume organized a conference bringing together adherents of two major strands of grammatical theory illustrating this clash, traditionally grouped under the labels of formalist and functionalist theories. This book includes five keynote lectures given by internationally renowned experts. The keynotes offer insight into the current debate and show possibilities for exchange between these two major accounts of grammatical theory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgment
  • Introduction (Peter Kosta and Katrin Schlund)
  • Generalized Asymmetry (Željko Bošković)
  • Maximize Asymmetry, Minimize Externalization and Interface Asymmetries (Anna Maria Di Sciullo)
  • Explanation in Syntax: Generative Syntax from a Functional Perspective and the Incommensurability of Syntactic Theories (Egbert Fortuin)
  • The Unified Voice Phase Hypothesis and the Nature of Parameterized Functional Heads in a Phase-Label-Driven1 Model of Radical Minimalism with Special Reference to Slavic Languages (Peter Kosta)
  • On Sound-Meaning Correlation (Nirmalangshu Mukherji)
  • List of Contributors
  • Series index

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The International Conference on Explanation and Prediction (CEP): Formalist and Functionalist Approaches. Ruprecht- Karls- University Heidelberg, February 13 and 14, 2019 was funded by the German Research Foundation.

Peter Kosta and Katrin Schlund


„Das Wesen des Satzes angeben, heißt das Wesen aller Beschreibungen angeben, also das Wesen der Welt.“ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, TLP 5.4711)

To state the essence of the proposition means to state the essence of all descriptions, that is, the essence of the world (Ludwig Wittgenstein, TLP 5.4711)

Although all scientific insight is based on processes of description, explanation, and prediction, there is no consensus on what constitutes a valuable description, explanation, or prediction in grammatical theory. This is due to the still lingering conflict between formalist and functionalist approaches in linguistics described in Randy Allen Harris’ book with the martial title “The Linguistic Wars” back in 1993. Adherents of formalist views often discard functional explanations as uninteresting or even unscientific (e.g., Newmeyer 1998: 3). Functionalists respond that purely grammatical explanations are actually mere descriptions on a higher level of abstraction that do not have any explanatory value of their own (e.g., Givón 1979: 5–8). Consequently, there has also been constant quarrel about the status of prediction. Egré’s (2015: 451) view that “prediction is equally [as] applicable in linguistics as in other empirical sciences” contrasts sharply with Janda’s (2013: 7) assessment that “[t]‌he reality for linguistics is […] very different from that of the physical sciences,” which is why she concludes that linguistics cannot and does not need to be “in the business of prediction” (Janda 2013: 8).

Fundamental questions like these led us to the establishing of a conference which brought together researchers from different theoretical strands and allowed for united discussion. On February 13–14, 2019, the “International Conference on Explanation and Prediction in Linguistics: Formalist and Functionalist Approaches” (CEP) took place at Heidelberg University, with the generous support of the German Research Foundation (DFG).1

This volume includes the keynote lectures held in the plenary sessions by internationally renowned experts of grammatical theory, biolinguistics, ←9 | 10→and language philosophy, representing both formalist and functionalist approaches: Željko Bošković (University of Connecticut, United States), Egbert Fortuin (Leiden University, Netherlands), Martin Haspelmath (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany), Peter Kosta (Potsdam University, Germany), Nirmalangshu Mukherji (University of Delhi, India), and Anna Maria Di Sciullo (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada; New York University, United States). We have succeeded in getting almost all of these outstanding scientists to contribute to our anthology. The only, and very regrettable exception is the keynote by Martin Haspelmath,2 who had indicated from the beginning that he would not be able to publish with us.

Since its beginnings with Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1955/67), Generative Grammar has regarded the goals of observational, descriptive and explanatory adequacy as a package, and has never lost sight of the explanatory objective. Eric Lenneberg’s biolinguistics gained ground significantly in the 1970s and then again in the first two decades of the 21st century. The resurgence of biolinguistic research is demonstrated through the work of Anna Maria di Sciullo, Cedric Boeckx, and Kleanthes M. Grohmann (who are also publishers of the Biolinguistics series of the same name). The establishment of the international Biolinguistics Network with a series of international conferences in 2011–2019, mostly organized by Anna Maria di Sciullo and Massimo Piatelli-Parlmarini, has brought us closer to the goal of explanatory adequacy.

On the functionalist side, the 1990s have seen the fruitful association of Western and Eastern strands of functionally inspired language theory. The basic tenet of functionalism, despite the broad range of particular elaborations thereof, is the assumption that language is shaped by its function(s), and that the core function of language is communication. Western functionalism is rooted in cognitive psychology (as represented most prominently by Eleanor Rosch), discourse and conversation analytical frameworks (above all Dell Hymes’ and John Gumperz’ Ethnography of Communication, e.g., Dell 1972; Gumperz ed. 1972), as well as the “cognitivist paradigm” anticipated by Talmy Givón (1979) and Lakoff and Johnson (1980), and further developed by Ronald Langacker (1987, 1991), Leonard Talmy (2000), and others. Of course, the rise of linguistic typology, associated with the names of Joseph Greenberg, Hansjakob Seiler, or Denis Creissels, has played a key role here as well.←10 | 11→

Eastern linguistics has been less influenced by the neglect of meaning that was characteristic particularly of early Generativism. Here, the unity of language form and language content has never been questioned even in highly formalized approaches like the Meaning-Text-Model (e.g., Mel’čuk 1974). The emphasis on the functions of languages was, of course, most prominently pronounced in the eastern strands of structuralism, namely in the Kazan School, the internationally poorly recognized trailblazer of structuralism, and in the Prague School. Functionalist ideas traveled to Western Europe and North America in the luggage of the most prominent representative of Prague functionalism, Roman Jakobson. There they could synthesize, for instance, with Franz Boas’, Edward Sapir’s and Benjamin Whorf’s anthropological linguistics. The St. Petersburg school of language typology is another continuation of Eastern functionalist structuralism.

The functionalist endeavor has witnessed extreme growth and enrichment in the 21st century, particularly with the advent of various strands of Construction Grammar, the most influential of which include Adele Goldberg’s (1995) approach and William Croft’s Radical Construction Grammar (2001). The interaction between functionalist and formalist frameworks is, however, still absent or fruitless (cf. Haspelmath 2000).

The present volume is the result of extremely interesting and stimulating discussions. They were not linguistic wars, but peaceful and consensus-oriented scientific debates, in which truth, and not ideologies, played the biggest role. We hope that this volume will serve to spread our belief that it is expedient to take both approaches seriously; not as a contradiction, but as different strategies and attempts to grasp the phenomenon of language in a mutually supportive way.

It was not the purpose of the conference and the present volume to find a common ground or denominator in terms of terminology because, at this point, no common metalanguage between functional and formal work has been established. Instead, the main objective of the conference was to bring together researchers from different linguistic fields and subdisciplines and to gather different perspectives, understandings, methods, and theories dealing with issues of linguistic explanation and prediction. Consequently, we did not attempt to homogenize different points of view. On the contrary, the papers present their results as they exist in the current state of the discipline.

The issues discussed in the present volume include the following: The paper “Generalized Asymmetry” by Željko Bošković (University of Connecticut) argues for a Maximize Asymmetric Relations (MAR) preference as a general property of language based on a number of phenomena which are independent of word order. In addition to expanding the domain of asymmetry, ←11 | 12→a number of mechanisms and phenomena are unified from this perspective, with their reason for existence traced back to MAR, namely the diachronic loss of specifiers, the Linear Correspondence Axiom, the Phase-Impenetrability Condition, the no-Spec-without-complement aspect of Bare Phrase Structure, the rarity of multiple Spec constructions (as with, e.g., multiple wh-fronting), and the Who-Left-Effect (where subject wh-movement cannot proceed through SpecTP). MAR is also shown to favor approaches where movement is moving-element-driven over those where movement is target-driven as well as Bare Phrase structure building over government and binding structure building, and to have consequences for the proper formulation of several mechanisms, including the Phase-Impenetrability Condition, Case licensing, and the Extended Projection Principle (EPP). The paper also discusses MAR within a broader formalism vs functionalism setting, from a unifying perspective where both of these approaches have a place.

The topic of asymmetry plays a crucial role also in the paper by Anna Maria Di Sciullo (UQAM & SUNY) entitled “Maximize Asymmetry, Minimize Externalization and Interface Asymmetries”. The co-founder of the international network in biolinguistics and expert in asymmetry in morphosyntax shows how and why interface asymmetries arise when syntactic constituents are interpreted at the semantic interface but not at the phonetic interface. Such phenomena are challenging for any linguistic theory aiming to provide an explanation for them. The author focuses on simple coordinate Noun Phrases (NPs) in English and derives differences in externalization interpretation. The analysis proposed by Di Sciullo relies on the interaction of simplest MERGE with principles of efficient computation, namely Maximize Asymmetry and Minimize Externalization. This contrasts with traditional approaches to coordinate NPs, and, since it is motivated independently, it can be integrated into a truly explanatory linguistic theory, namely the simplest theory deriving linguistic phenomena and meeting the criteria of language acquireability and evolvability.

The paper “Explanation in Syntax: Generative Syntax from a Functional Perspective and the Incommensurability of Syntactic Theories” by Egbert Fortuin (Leiden University) raises the question of whether linguistic functionalism and formalism (especially generative syntax) are commensurable in the Kuhnian sense. Fortuin addresses this topic through a discussion of a number of generative analyses (case studies), which he evaluates from a functional perspective. His analysis shows how a number of phenomena that are analyzed and explained within the generative paradigm can be explained differently from a functional theoretical perspective and framework. Fortuin concludes that generativist and functionalist theories of syntax are incommensurable in the ←12 | 13→Kuhnian sense. It is therefore impossible to conduct a crucial experiment (Karl Popper) to prove which theory is ultimately correct. On a more positive note, Fortuin concludes by pointing out some ways in which generativist and functionalist linguists can still engage in fruitful discussions.

Peter Kosta (University of Potsdam) tries to unify different constructions with affinity to Voice—such as analytic (personal) passive, synthetic (impersonal) reflexive passive, adversative transitive impersonals, unergatives, unaccusatives anti-causatives and causatives—under a generalized Voice Phase Hypothesis, showing, explaining and predicting that these head Voice-related constructions with different functions are determined by their specific argument-predicate hierarchy and the overt or covert expression of the subject Theta Roles.

The last paper by Nirmalangshu Mukherji (Delhi University) “On Sound-Meaning Correlation” gives a most stimulating insight into the evolution of natural languages. Mukherji compares the generativist hypothesis that sound in language—and therefore, communication—is ancillary (the SAH-hypothesis, in his terms), that is, only a secondary function of language, to Charles Darwin’s account of the evolution of language. Contrary to the generativist assumption, Darwin assumed that language evolved via a mutually reinforcing exchange between sounds (words) and mental concepts. Mukherji concludes that the generativist SAH hypothesis is questionable for evolutionary reasons outlined previously by Darwin.

When compiling the volume, we realized that it was not possible to harmonize contributions to such an extent that a homogeneous picture would have arisen, nor would this have been desirable. We are nevertheless convinced that, despite the diversity and heterogeneity in the field, the present volume offers an insightful read to linguists interested in discussions across frameworks.

The contributors are ultimately responsible for the content of their papers.

The papers presented here have undergone a strict double-blind reviewing process. We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable work.

The Editors

Falkensee/Heidelberg, May 2021



ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
grammatical theory functional grammar generative grammar and syntax formalism and functionalism explanation – prediction – generativism
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 234 pp., 10 fig. b/w, 4 tables.

Biographical notes

Peter Kosta (Volume editor) Katrin Schlund (Volume editor)

Peter Kosta is chair of Slavic Linguistics at the Department for Slavic Studies of the University of Potsdam (Germany). He works on biolinguistics, universals, typology, generative syntax, formal semantics, conversation analysis, and language policy. He is editor of HSK Slavic Languages and co-editor of the Zeitschrift für Slawistik/Journal of Slavic Studies as well as the author of ten books and more than three hundred articles. Katrin Schlund is an associate professor of Slavic linguistics at the University of Heidelberg (Germany). Her research foci include impersonal constructions, form-meaning-relationship in language, politeness in language, political poetry, and biscriptality.


Title: Keynotes from the International Conference on Explanation and Prediction in Linguistics (CEP): Formalist and Functionalist Approaches
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236 pages