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Parametric versus functional explanations of syntactic universals

Haspelmath, Martin

This paper compares the generative principles-and-parameters approach to explaining syntactic universals to the functional-typological approach and also discusses the intermediate approach of Optimality Theory. It identifies
some fundamental differences between generative parametric explanations and functional explanations. Most importantly, generative explanations assume that cross-linguistic generalizations are due to the innate Universal Grammar, whereas functional explanations assume that language structure can be influenced by regularities of language use through language change. Despite these differences, both approaches to cross-linguistic similarities and differences seem to be guided by a similar vision: That the superficial structural diversity of languages can be reduced to a few basic patterns once one digs below the surface (macroparameters or holistic types). Unfortunately, the evidence for such reductionist constructs has never been very good, so more recently both generativists and functionalists have shifted their interests away from these ambitious goals. However, I argue that there is one type of cross-linguistic generalization for which there is very good empirical evidence: intra-domain universals relating to prominence scales, most of which are straightforwardly explained functionally in terms of processing difficulty.

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