There are a plethora of theoretical and practical views about the meaning, function and understanding of grammar. .These views often conflict, while there are also numerous areas of intersection and comparison. This paper will focus on two of the main theoretical trajectories in contemporary understanding of what grammar is.; namely the formalist-mentalist and functionalist views.
It may however be cogent to firstly discuss various underlying definitions and views of the meaning of grammar as these fundaments tend to provide an avenue of understanding of the central theories involved. The word grammar derived from grammatike or grammatike techne, which in classical Greek meant "the art of writing." ( Ezzaher, Lahcen E. 2001)
It is important to note that the meaning of 'grammar' was originally focused on "writing" and not speech. This is a crucial aspect as many of the contending linguistic and grammatical theories tend to privilege writing over speech in their understanding of what grammar essentially is. This factor can also be brought to bear in an understanding of the underling difference between the formalist and functionalist approach -- as will be discussed in this paper.
The primacy of writing over speech therefore can be seen as starting point in understanding the different views on grammar.
....in a widely literate society such as ours, we are presented with the challenge of the primacy of writing over speech. Current spoken language, particularly in the academy, is subjected to the rules of traditional grammar. Secondly, written language is the language of education and power.
( Ezzaher, Lahcen E. 2001)
The fact that "... grammatical correctness is presented as a body of rules normalizing language use," and that "Such rules come from outside of the form of discourse to be added to it ... " ( ibid) is a pointer, for example, of much of the underlying thought of the formalist approach to the meaning of grammar. Therefore, underlying many of the different theories about grammar are assumptions and perceptions about the nature of language.
2. Various meanings of the term grammar
There are many different interpretations of the word grammar. For many it is the correctness of speech and writing that forms the cardinal attribute of a grammar. From another point-of-view grammar refers to the inflections or the word endings common in many languages. Another view is that the central characteristic of grammar is that it is the way that ideas are structured and organized into words. In essence however, the term grammar is most commonly seen as a term that "describes how we choose and arrange our words."
(Kies, D. 2005) A common perspective of the meaning of grammar is succinctly stated as follows. "Grammar is about how units of language are sequenced." (Kies, D. 2005) Grammas is therefore a means of expressing various meaning and organizing ideas conceptually
However there are very different and sometimes seemingly diametrically opposed views of what grammar is and how it functions. As was mentioned in the introduction to this paper, it is often the case that these different perceptions and theories have their foundations in different beliefs and views of reality and the nature of language itself.
The various modern theoretical views of what constitutes grammar can be seen to begin with the reaction against structuralism. The structuralist tradition which includes the important work of Bloomfield (1933), focused on the classification of the various elements of a particular language. ( Bourke JM.)
'The structuralist grammarian simply collects samples of the target language and classifies them in much the same way as a biologist classifies butterflies." (Bourke JM.)
Furthermore, the structuralist views grammar as essentially a means of " ... bringing order to the set of external facts that make up the language. (Bourke JM.) This view of grammar was rejected by Chomsky and others. Chomsky viewed this perception of grammar as E-language or externalized language. He conceived of true grammar as I-language or internalized language. This view was based on the underlying belief that grammar must be psychologically real. Chomsky states that a grammar " ... must capture and explain language knowledge in terms of the properties of the human mind." (Cook, 1988, p. 12).
The move away from the structuralist perception of grammar can be described as a move from a prescriptive to a descriptive form of grammar. Descriptive grammar describes language as it is in reality and not as it should be ideally seen.
Another view that is often seen as being the polar opposite of the view that Chomsky proposed, is Systemic Functional Grammar. SFG views language primarily in terms of its context and function and in relation to society and social interaction. This view is in contradistinction to the more formalistic views of grammar which are relatively unrelated to social factors and see grammar as having a deeper intuitive structure which is common to all language groups. A prime example is the work of Noam Chomsky, whose methods were largely derived from those of his neo-Bloomfieldian teacher Zellig Harris, and were related to the maintenance of the " .... non-functional approach of Bloomfield, and its concentration on the forms or expressions of language, with relative neglect of the relationships between form and function. " (Langbrain: Interview with Sydney Lamb. 1998)
Between these two extremes are various other views and theories of grammar. One of these, for example, is neurocognitve linguistics which looks at language primarily in its relation to the brain. However, in general terms theories of grammar tend to fall into two main categories; these are the formal and functional views of grammar. Simple stated, formal grammar places emphasis on linguistic form and structure, while functional theories " ... focus on language as a functional system which people deploy for particular purposes or goals." (McGregor, 1997, p. 4) This is an important distinction that will be discussed in detail in this paper.
It should be pointed out that between these two extremes of grammatical and linguistic theory there are a variety of different views which places emphasis on one or another of these two main views. These include the following theoretical stances: generalized phrase structure grammar (GPSG) and extreme functionalism; lexical functional grammar (LFG), relational grammar (RG), role and reference grammar (RRG), cognitive grammar (CG), Dik's functional grammar (FG) and semiotic grammar (SG). (McGregor, 1997, p. 4)
The functional view of language has a number of characteristics that need to be explicated in order to make the distinction between the views of Chomsky and Halliday clear. Firstly, functionalism views grammar as essentially non-autonomous. In this view grammar is not " ... An autonomous, self-contained system." (McGregor, 1997, p. 4) In other words the language and grammatical system are viewed as being co present and coterminous with social accessibility and expression." Language does not exist in and of it, but is an integral part of human semiotic activity." (McGregor, 1997, p. 4) For the functional theorist there is no autonomous syntax and semantics are not essentially divorced from one another
Another very significant difference between formal and functional approaches to grammar is that, from a functionalist perspective, the distinction between deep and surface structures does not exist, as it does in Chomsky's view of language and grammar. Functionalist theories also emphasize the multifunctional aspects of linguistic phenomena as a normative factor.
Formal theories of the Chomskyan type regard language as a well-defined system. By this is meant that ": ... The acceptable (grammatical) sentences of a given language form a well defined set: given any string of words and/or morphemes in the language it is possible to decide whether or not that string is a member of the set of grammatical sentences, (McGregor, 1997, p. 5) While Semiotic grammar, a stance similar to Systemic Functional Grammar, adopts a social-interactionist rather than a mentalist point-of-view about the meaning and function of grammar, in that language is seen as essentially a social phenomenon (McGregor, 1997, p. 5)
3. Chomsky and Halliday
Chomsky is recognized as one of the foremost modern innovators in linguistics and language theory. In his doctoral thesis he began to develop some of his linguistic ideas. These ideas were elaborated in the book Syntactic Structure, published in 1957. This was one of his best known works in linguistics. Not only is he regarded by any as the founder of modern linguistics, but he is also acknowledged as the main proponent of the field of transformational-generative grammar. This area is strongly related to logic and philosophy. (Cowley, J. 2003)
An essential aspect that characterizes his early work was his opposition to behaviorist theory. "His works in generative linguistics contributed significantly to the decline of behaviorism and led to the advancement of the cognitive sciences." (Wikipedia: Noam Chompsky.)
To summarize his views, Chomsky begins from the view that although different groups of people speak different languages, yet all human language is essentially governed by common rules, or principles, that are universal. " Every language has rules that govern pronunciation, word formation, and sentence construction,…