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Deutsches Seminar Combining functional with formal approaches

General information

Important dates

28 February 2021: Submission of abstracts closes (see Call for papers)

15 April 2021: Notification of acceptance

30 April 2021: Programme finalised (see Programme)

26 May 2021: Registration closes (see Registration)

28 May 2021: Workshop

Motivation for our workshop

Functional(-quantitative) and formal approaches to language have for a long time been regarded as complete opposites in linguistic theorizing with neither of the two approaches considering the other’s perspective in their work (e.g. Haspelmath 2000); the binary/dichotomic relationship between the two approaches goes back to the (non-)assumption of a Universal Grammar or rather an innate faculty of speech. While both approaches essentially assume that language is a cognitive object, it is not until recently that the view has emerged that both approaches – functional and formal – are necessary to account for the full range of variation we can observe in language (see e.g. contributions in Adli et al. 2015; also Pierrehumbert 2006; and the ERC-Grant Starfish project which combines sociolinguistics with theoretical linguistics, cf. Walkden/Breitbarth 2019). These so-called hybrid models of language assume that both formal (rule-based) approaches as well as functional (usage-based) approaches are needed to explain the full gradience of variation (see Guy 2014; also Grafmiller et al. 2018). One such model, the variationist sociolinguistic framework, assumes that variation is governed both by abstract rules (e.g. the person hierarchy and subject selection, cf. Bresnan et al. 2001) but also allows for subtle variability in these rules that are learned from one’s exposure to linguistic input. A (more) formalist framework is, by the way, quite similar in its assumptions of abstract rules and variability in the output (e.g. narrow syntax and feature selection; the so-called third-factor principles, cf. Chomsky 2005). Both approaches are similar to each other in that they try to explain variation in terms of linguistic and extralinguistic principles. With this, hybrid models follow Bybee (2006: 711) in that they assume that grammar is the “cognitive organization of one’s experience with language”, thus allowing for subtle adaptation of the abstractions postulated by formal approaches. While such hybrid models have been proposed for some years now, there is no systematic investigation into the full range of grammatical phenomena. What is more, a large number of studies that assume a hybrid approach investigate variation in English (and varieties thereof) while other Germanic varieties and other languages such as Romance dialects have remained under the radar. A workshop that brings together scholars working on both perspectives, 20 years after “Why can’t we talk to each other” (Haspelmath 2000), is thus a timely matter.



Adli, Aria / García García, Marco / Kaufmann, Göz (eds.). 2015. Variation in Language: System- and Usage-based Approaches. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Bresnan, Joan / Dingare, Shipra / Manning, Christopher. 2001. Soft constraints mirror hard constraints: Voice and Person in Lummi and English. Proceedings of the LFG’ 01 Conference, University of Hong Kong. Stanford: CSLI Publications, 13–32.

Bybee, Joan. 2006. From usage to grammar: The mind’s response to repetition. Language 82(4), 711– 733.

Chomsky, Noam. 2005. Three factors in language design. Linguistic Inquiry 36, 1–22.

Grafmiller, Jason / Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt / Röthlisberger, Melanie / Heller, Benedikt. 2018. General introduction: A comparative perspective on probabilistic variation in grammar. Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 3(1): 94, 1–10. DOI:

Guy, Gregory. 2014. Linking usage and grammar: Generative phonology, exemplar theory, and variable rules. Lingua 142(1), 57–65.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2000. Why can’t we talk to each other? A review article of ‘Newmeyer, Frederick. 1998. Language form and language function. Cambridge: MIT Press.’ Lingua 110(4), 235–255.

Pierrehumbert, Janet. 2006. The next toolkit. Journal of Phonetics 34, 516–530.

Walkden, George / Breitbarth, Anne. 2019. Complexity as L2-difficulty: implications for syntactic change. Theoretical Linguistics 45(3–4), 183–209.

Weiterführende Informationen

Workshop Date and Place

Friday 28 May 2021 / Online

Submit your abstracts

Mehr zu Submit your abstracts

Please submit your abstracts (500 words excluding references) by 28th February 2021 via EasyAbs:


Dr. des. Ann-Marie Moser (Universität Zürich)

Dr. Melanie Röthlisberger (Universität Zürich)

Dr. Thomas Strobel (Goethe Universität Frankfurt)