A Functional View of Language

A Functional View of Language

A Functional View of Language

A Functional View of Language

Excerpt

A title is rarely quite as explicit as its author intends it to be, and a preface is no unnatural place for some glossing.

The 'functional' label, which appeared in the title of my 1949 booklet Phonology as Functional Phonetics and which I am using here again, is probably no less forbidding to large sections of the philological public than the more usual 'structural' tag. I am quite aware of this, and if I persevere it is because I am less inclined to flatter the preconceptions of some of my readers than to stress what, in my opinion, is conducive to sounder descriptive methods and a better understanding of language.

When reading, with full appreciation, the books and essays of some contemporary descriptivists, I cannot help wondering at times whether, in their striving for scientific detachment and their laudable efforts to do away with vague idealistic phraseology, they are not missing what Sapir, hampered by the pervading psychologism of his age, gropingly referred to as 'a basic plan, a certain cut to each language'. Fighting 'mentalism' should not consist in denying the existence of well-established facts, but in showing what palpable realities stand behind loose prescientific phrasing: it is fair play, for contemporary structuralists, to ridicule a phrase like 'the spirit of a language' because it is more likely to evoke some winged supernatural being than a set of internal relations; but it is bad policy to ignore or neglect the fact that any utterance or any segment of an utterance becomes a linguistic object only inasmuch as it has been identified as belonging to a given language. Physically, a glottal stop is just a noise, but in a segment identified as Arabic it will be perceived as a fully distinctive unit; if the context is known to be German it will be conceived as a delimiting . . .

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