Functional syntax

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The Functional Syntax explains linguistic forms through communicative tasks and purposes for which they are designed. The first approaches to this can already be found among the Stoics and pervade the whole tradition of grammar research . However, they were not developed into a consistent theory of language or grammar until the 19th century.

Philipp Wegener (1848–1916) takes up "Basic Questions of Language Life" (1885) from the humanities psychology in the wake of Wilhelm Wundt , which paid special attention to language. He analyzes speaking as purposeful and listener-related, as determined by the requirements of communicative listener control and ensuring understanding on the listener side. In addition to the communication of thoughts, purposes such as influencing the listener - by stimulating their sympathy - are pursued and are reflected in the form of the sentence and the linguistic means.

Developments in recent grammar research

The language psychologist Karl Bühler worked out the action and tool character of language in his language theory (1934). A functional analysis of linguistic means is initiated by his distinction between "display field" and "symbol field" of language, which Konrad Ehlich (1986) (2007) expanded to a five-field theory. The following "linguistic procedures" (Ehlich) correspond to the fields:

  • the deictic, pointing the listener (H) in a "reference space" orienting procedure of the pointing field ( me, there, now, then )
  • the operative procedure of the field of operation that determines the processing of verbalized knowledge by H (e.g. conjunctors such as but , anaphors such as es )
  • the symbolic procedure of the symbolic field that establishes the connection to reality for H (noun, verb, adjective stems such as house, beautiful, promise )
  • the expeditive procedure of the steering field that intervenes directly with H (knowledge / action) (e.g. interjections, imperative ending, vocative)
  • the expressive procedure of the malfeld, which conveys H nuanced evaluations or classifications (e.g. imitative intonation modulation).

The functional generative description also ties in with Bühler and the Prague School .

The subject of the " Functional Grammar " by Simon C. Dik was “the grammatical organization of connected discourse” (Dik 1989, 12). "Pragmatic adequacy" achieves this grammar if it succeeds "to reveal those properties of linguistic expressions which are relevant to the manner in which they are used ..." (Dik 1989, 12). Structure-changing operations (transformations), filters, abstract semantic predicates etc. are therefore rejected. The structure is determined by the assumption that all lexical units are to be understood as predicates. These are not used in independently generated syntactic structures, but form structures themselves from which predications can be built.

  • The lexicon provides elementary units (e.g. predicate frames, terms and formation rules);
  • Term insertion creates nuclear predications that semantically correspond to facts;
  • These predications are further specified step by step by operators (e.g. temporal) and satellites of different levels (e.g. “instrument”, later “location”), depending on the Skopoi, there are correspondingly extended predications (“core / embedded / extended predication ”), each again understood as predicates over variables;
  • In relation to the realized facts, the terms are assigned syntactic or presentative (as “points of view”) functions such as subject and object;
  • After the assignment of syntactic functions, the propositional structure is expanded by operators and satellites, which manifest propositional attitudes and modalizations, until finally on the full sentence level illocutive operators and satellites specify the role of action and the constituents of the predications, depending on the “informational status”, pragmatic functions (“topic ”,“ Focus ”);
  • The form, sequence and prosody of the constituents are finally implemented on the surface through the “expression rules”.

For the current development of this theory: Hengeveld / McKenzie (2010).

The approach of Talmy S. Givón for functional syntax is structurally and typological oriented. The author argues with a wide variety of data from different languages. Givòn is based on the empirically found forms and the structures that they create. Just as a biologist does taxonomic work on various types of skeletons as a preliminary stage to understanding their function in the living organism , so the linguist has to typologize linguistic structures and examine the functions coded in them. The most important linguistic functional areas form a hierarchy :

  • The vocabulary of a language, in which the generic knowledge of a culture is stored, is important as an object of lexical semantics .
  • Information as an object of propositional semantics only emerges when lexical units are embedded in propositions that are syntactically encoded in the form of sentences (Givón 1984, 31f.).
  • Function (in the sense of 'discourse function') are given to these propositions by embedding them in a specific context , examined by discourse pragmatics .

The study of syntax extends to the coding mechanisms in areas (b) and (c). The structural possibilities - word order, inflection, intonation and general restrictions of use - form discrete units. In contrast, the functional areas to be coded are characterized by multidimensionality and scalarity, so that there can be different distributions of the coding points in these functional areas within the language as well as in different languages.

A multi-perspective approach is presented with the “Grammar of the German Language” by Zifonun, Hoffmann and Bruno Strecker (1997). Access via the communicative function or the linguistic structure are not mutually exclusive, but complementary alternatives:

  • On the one hand, one should start from the elementary functions for which linguistic means have been developed (e.g. the function of designing, thematizing or thematically continuing facts or objects). In doing so, it is not just any functions that come into view, but only those for which specific linguistic forms and means are developed;
  • On the other hand, concrete forms and means (sounds, word forms, word order, intonation) and the formal structure of linguistic units must be assumed (e.g. the verb group gives a book - gives his girlfriend a book - Peter gives his girlfriend a book ). The approach here is a specific form expression or a specific means, which is to be analyzed in its form structure and, as far as possible, to be classified in a functional explanatory context.

According to the pragmatic syntax in Hoffmann (2003, 2013), the investigation of the structure of utterances requires a functional analysis of all constellations of language means. The combinatorics cannot be reduced to a basic type - such as a mere constitution (parts - whole). Rather, several basic types of syntactic procedures are to be assumed, which, on their own or synergistically, create the utterance meaning. The functions linked to the linguistic means involved form the preliminary area of ​​such a procedure, the subsequent area the function of the procedurally emerging unit. Formally, the functional interaction can be clarified by combining or fusing their expressive form, by their immediate or position-specific sequence, i.e. the means of serialization , or a common intonation contour. The common concepts of the structure of the sentence presuppose that the hierarchical structure is determined by relations of the same kind: either dependency (see dependency grammar ) or constituency (see constituent grammar ) or compositional connection (cf. Ajdukiewicz's categorical syntax ). The linear order is established by derivation or directly surface syntactically. In contrast, the structure is functionally determined in a functional, pragmatic syntax. The two most important types of functional combinatorics are:

  • the "synthesis" of dissimilar expressions / means into a unit whose function does not correspond to the functions of one of its parts;
  • the "integration" of identical or dissimilar expressions / means into a unit, the function of which results from the basic function of one of its parts.

The sentence appears as the result of a synthesis . In the process of synthesis, what is functionally dissimilar is combined into a higher, independent functional unit with an overarching purpose. The connection of subject and predication results in the expression of the structured, closed thought as the basis of a sentence. In the procedure of integration, language elements are combined to form a functional unit, the function of one being assigned to the function of the other and supporting the function of the other. In German, integration usually goes hand in hand with a neighborhood position and formal adaptation of inflected endings . The function of the whole results from the dominant function of a part, the head of the construction. Differentiated tasks such as object reference ( my old friend from the Caribbean ) or predication ( playing volleyball with enthusiasm ) can only be performed in an integrative manner. Further syntactic procedures such as "coordination" or "implementation" are presented in Hoffmann (2003). A grammar on this basis is Hoffmann (2013).


  • K. Ajdukiewicz (1935): The syntactic connexity , in: Studia Philosophica 1 (Warszawa) pp. 1–28
  • K. Bühler (1934/1965): Language theory , Stuttgart: G. Fischer
  • SC Dik (1989): The Theory of Functional Grammar I , Amsterdam: Foris
  • K. Ehlich (1986): Functional-pragmatic communication analysis , in: D. Flader (ed.) (1991), Verbale Interaktion, Stuttgart: Metzler, pp. 127-143. Again in: L. Hoffmann (Ed.) (2000/2) Linguistics . Berlin / New York: de Gruyter, 183–203
  • K. Ehlich (2007) Language and Linguistic Action . Volume 1-3. Berlin / New York: de Gruyter
  • TS Givón (1995) Functionalism and Grammar . Amsterdam: Benjamin
  • TS Givón (2001/2002): Syntax , Vol I-II, Amsterdam: Benjamin
  • K. Hengeveld / JL McKenzie (2010) Functional Discourse Grammar. In: B. Heine / H. Narrog (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis . Oxford: University Press, 367-400
  • E. Keizer (2015) A Functional Discourse Grammar for English . Oxford: University Press
  • L. Hoffmann (ed.) (2003): Functional Syntax . Berlin / New York: de Gruyter
  • L. Hoffmann (2016) German Grammar. Basics for teacher training, school, German as a second language and German as a foreign language. Berlin: Erich Schmidt (3rd, improved and expanded edition)
  • G. Zifonun / L. Hoffmann / B. Strecker et al. (1997): Grammar of the German Language , Berlin / New York: de Gruyter