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Dell Hymes, Geoffrey Leech, and Deborah Schiffrin have commented on the differen
ces between formal and functional theories in a nutshell in their works. For exa
mple, Leech (1983) in his Principles of Pragmatics distinguishes four important
differences which are discussed below. The formal approach studies language as an
autonomous system whereas the functional approach studies language as a social
system and the cognitive appro ach as a conceptual system.

In an autonomous system, the system is studied in terms of the system only so

language is studied in terms of the form of language only. In a social system, t he
system is studied as a product of the society serving social functions so l anguage
is studied in terms of how society creates language and how it is used t o perform
the societal functions. In a cognitive system, the system is a product of
conceptualization so language is studied as a product of cognition and how it
evolves through its use.

To explain it further, according to the formalists such as Chomsky, lang uage

is as it is because of a common genetic linguistic inheritance of the human species
from which language universals are derived. So there is a language facu lty or
programme already wired up in the human brain as a human being is born. A nd
according to the functionalists such as Halliday, language is as it is becaus e of the
universality of the uses to which language is put in human society from which
language universals are derived. So there is no language faculty or progr amme
already wired up in the human brain as a human being is born but it evolved socially
as human beings conducted their living. As a result, language is as it is because of
what it has to do. In other words, the formal and functional appr oaches to language
are diametrically opposite in their fundamental premise of ho w language is created:
formalists view language as genetic; and functionalists a s social.

The cognitivists view grammar as conceptualization and consider language as it i s

used. The formalists (e.g., Chomsky) regard language primarily as a mental phe
nomenon whereas the functionalists (e.g., Halliday) regard it as a societal phen
omenon. Again, there is a contradiction in the conceptualization of language. Fr om
this perspective, according to the formalists, language is a psychological ph
enomenon whereas according to the functionalists, it is a social phenomenon. To
explain it further, language is an internal phenomenon according to the formalis ts
and the social and cognitive functions of language do not impinge on the inte rnal
organization of language. On the other hand, according to the functionalist s,
language has functions that are external to the linguistic system itself and most
importantly the external functions influence the internal organization of t he
linguistic system. Therefore, there is another contradiction in these two the ories
with regard to the influence of external forces: formalists say that exter nal forces
do not influence the internal organization of language while the func tionalists say
that they do.

The formal approach (e.g., Chomsky) explains the acquisition of language by a child
due to a built in capacity to learn a language. Functionalists (e.g. , Halliday) explain
it in terms of the development of the child's communicative needs and abilities in
society. Again, there is contradiction with respect to th e acquisition of language:
formalists support "nature" and functionalists "nurtu re".

Dell Hymes (1974) in his article "Why Linguistics needs the Sociolinguist" discu sses
some of the important problems not answered by the formalists and lists the m in
seven points as explained below:

The structural (i.e. formalist) approach considers the structure of lang uage (code)
as grammar whereas the functional approach considers the structure o f speech
(act, event) as ways of speaking. In other words, the structural approa ch focuses on
language as a formal autonomous system of phonology, syntax, and s emantics. As
such it is independent of the purposes or functions which these for ms are used to
serve in human affairs. The functional approach on the other hand considers
language as language in use which consists of speech acts, events, an d situations
and so dependent on the purposes or functions which these forms are designed to
serve in human affairs. Hence, there is an opposition in these view s: independent
Vs dependent.

Use merely implements what is analyzed as code and the analysis of code should be
prior to the analysis of use this is the formalist view of language structure and use.
The functionalist view is opposite to this view: analysis of use should be prior to the
analysis of code because organization of use disclose s additional features and
relations. In the functionalist view, use and code are in an integral (dialectical)
relation - note the spelling of dialectical derive d from dialectic: it is not dialectal
which is derived from dialect, one variety of language. In the formalist view, they
are in a sort of linear relation. Henc e, both the views are contradictory in their

According to the formalists, language is referential in its function wit h fully

semanticized uses as the norm whereas the functionalists deal with the g amut of
stylistic or social functions. In other words, formalism is concerned wi th the
sentential meaning while functionalism with the utterance meaning.

Elements and structures are analytically arbitrary (in a cross-cultural or historical

perspective) or universal (in a theoretical perspective) in formal ism while they are
ethnographically appropriate in functionalism.

There is a functional equivalence of all languages in formalism while th ere is

functional differentiation of languages, varieties, and styles in functio nalism. All
languages are essentially (potentially) equal in the formalist parad igm while they
are not necessarily existentially (actually) equivalent.

Formalism studies language in terms of a single homogeneous code and com

munity ("replication of uniformity") while functionalism studies it in terms of the
speech community as the matrix of code-repertoires or speech styles ("organi zation
of diversity).

Formalism takes for granted or arbitrarily postulates fundamental concep ts such as

speech community, speech act, fluent speaker, functions of speech and of
languages whereas functionalism considers them as problematic and therefore to
be investigated.

As language has not only formal but also functional properties, we need a theory
that can accommodate both these properties. However, in view of the differences in
their theoretical premises, it is difficult to combine both the paradigms and try to
account for the formal and functional properties of language together in an eclectic
approach. Even if there are no two explicit options required to trigger a response
bias, t here is always an inherent set of options to do or not do an action and as
such there will always be a response bias for an action and consequently a
dispositio nal bias to trigger the response bias and finally a dispositional basis and
disp osition (personality) to create the dispositional bias.

In addition, any type of action is hierarchically evolutionary in its structureas

follows:(3) Concept (Process) evolving into Pattern evolving into Structure where the
concept and pattern are abstract (in the form of imagination) and the structure is
material (in the form of sound). In systems thinking also such a vi ew is held.
According to Fritjof Capra's New Synthesis Model, the structure embo dies the
pattern and the pattern embodies the process. For example, a house is c onceived
(concept) by an engineer and its blue print (pattern) is visualized and made on a
drawing paper and finally materialized by the construction of the hou se with
cement, bricks, etc. However, the desire to construct a house and its de sign are
generated, specified and directed by the disposition (personality) of t he engineer.

What is more, every action is not a mere patterned structure but it has another
important dimension to it: it has a function as well. In fact, form, meaning, fu nction,
and disposition (personality) are also interconnected-interrelated-inter dependent
by the Principle of Radial Reciprocal Interaction:

(4) Disposition (personality) Function Action [Meaning Pattern Structur

e] Result Experience.
In other words, there are two dimensions to every action: form and function. In our
real life, we come across mainly two types of action: 1.formal-functional ac tion; 2.
functional-formal action:


Action : Formal Functional or Functional Formal.

In formal-functional action, action procedes from an already existing form by gi

ving it a function (e.g., in firewood, already existing wood (form) is endowed w

ith a function of creating fire by burning it) and in functional-formal action,

action procedes from a conceived function to form (e.g., a car (form) is created

out of a function to transport people).

Applying this concept to language formation, we can say that meaning is abstract
as differentiated awareness of this and that and it manifests itself in concret e form
via symbolization, (i.e., semiotic representation) and this symbolization requires a
system or a pattern which is phono-lexico-syntax [sound (phonetics) evolving into
lexis and lexis evolving into syntax]. Finally, this pattern is ma terialized as sound
manifests it in the form of speech. However, the desire to c reate a language as well
as its design are generated, specified and directed by the disposition (personality)
of the language community.


Disposition (personality) - Semantics -Phono-Lexico-Syntax (Grammar or S

yntax in the Traditional Sense) - Speech or Language

As a language such as English or Arabic is not already there in the formative st ages
of its evolution, we can say that a language is a functional-formal creatio n. Of
course, as it is transmitted to a child as it grows up, it is transmitted as a formal-
functional product: the child makes use of an already existing syste m.
The creation of the language system is an action and as such it follows equation (4)
and therefore function and form are interrelated-interconnected-interdepend ent in
a radial relationship. Furthermore, its cognition is also a part of the w hole process.

Language process is more complex than the construction of a house and as such th
ere are so many other factors involved in its formation. These include the inclu sion
of the cognitive, the sociculturalspiritual, the contextual actional, and a ctional
planes of action on the one hand and the individual-collective standardi zation of
the language, atomic-holistic functionality of phonemes-words-sentence s-
discourse-action-result-experience to construct the dispositional reality of the
human beings. But the point is that all these factor s are parts of the whole process
where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and even beyond the whole.
All the same, as a language is created, it is c reated functional-formally and so form
and function are interrelated-interconnec ted-interdependent.

If language is innate or cognitive or social action, then it is difficult to acc ount for
both the internal and external variation in language on the one hand an d the
extensive expansion of language in its variety, range, and depth. The empi rical
evidence we get from all the levels of language from phonetics to semantic s; from
pragmatics to discourse points out the role of choice in language. Where ver there is
a choice, there is a response bias and a causative dispositionalbia s and disposition
(personality) behind it:

(7) Disposition (personality)

Disposition (personality) Bias

Response Bias



Lingual Action

If we look at language from a process and product perspective, historical lingui stics
points out that in the formation and use of language there is an interconn ected-
interrelated-interdependent networking of

1. cognitive abilities;

2. phenomenal knowledge;
3. living demands;

4. dispositional creativity; and

5. experientiality

out of which only the cognitive abilities are genetically inherited and disposit ional
creativity is genetically inherited but contextually harnessed. The remain ing two
are externally anchored. Every word that came into existence would not h ave come
into existence without the networking of all the four factors. It is im possible for a
human being to create vocabulary without phenomenal knowledge of the real,
possible, or imaginary worlds; or without creativity; or without the d ispositional
functional pressure to fulfill his desires; or getting the experien ce of the desired
results without using language. Such linguistic creation depe nds on the
dispositional social semiotic cognition of action and therefore such action is
decisively not innate. So also it is not social even though society pl ays the crucial
role of individual-collective-contextual standardization and tra nsmission of
language but not the actual creation of language. It is so because it is a creative
phenomenon and requires individual intellectual initiative to c ommunicate with
others by using such intellectual principles such as superimposi tion, etc.

Leech, G.N. (1983). Principles of Pragmatics. New York: Longman

Schiffrin, Deborah (1994). Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell