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Generative vs. functional theories of language

One major debate in linguistics concerns how language should be defined and understood. Some linguists use the term "language" primarily to refer to a hypothesized, innate module in the human brain that allows people to undertake linguistic behavior, which is part of the formalist approach. This "universal grammar" is considered to guide children when they learn languages and to constrain what sentences are considered grammatical in any language. Proponents of this view, which is predominant in those schools of linguistics that are based on the generative theory of Noam Chomsky, do not necessarily consider that language evolved for communication in particular. They consider instead that it has more to do with the process of structuring human thought (see also formal grammar).

Another group of linguists, by contrast, use the term "language" to refer to a communication system that developed to support cooperative activity and extend cooperative networks. Such theories of grammar, called "functional", view language as a tool that emerged and is adapted to the communicative needs of its users, and the role of cultural evolutionary processes are often emphasized over that of biological evolution.<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=book }}</ref>


Linguistics is primarily descriptive. Linguists describe and explain features of language without making subjective judgments on whether a particular feature or usage is "good" or "bad". This is analogous to practice in other sciences: a zoologist studies the animal kingdom without making subjective judgments on whether a particular species is "better" or "worse" than another.

Prescription, on the other hand, is an attempt to promote particular linguistic usages over others, often favoring a particular dialect or "acrolect". This may have the aim of establishing a linguistic standard, which can aid communication over large geographical areas. It may also, however, be an attempt by speakers of one language or dialect to exert influence over speakers of other languages or dialects (see Linguistic imperialism). An extreme version of prescriptivism can be found among censors, who attempt to eradicate words and structures that they consider to be destructive to society. Prescription, however, is practiced in the teaching of language, where certain fundamental grammatical rules and lexical terms need to be introduced to a second-language speaker who is attempting to acquire the language.


Before the 20th century, linguists analyzed language on a diachronic plane, which was historical in focus. This meant that they would compare linguistic features and try to analyze language from the point of view of how it had changed between then and later. However, with Saussurean linguistics in the 20th century, the focus shifted to a more synchronic approach, where the study was more geared towards analysis and comparison between different language variations, which existed at the same given point of time.

At another level, the syntagmatic plane of linguistic analysis entails the comparison between the way words are sequenced, within the syntax of a sentence. For example, the article "the" is followed by a noun, because of the syntagmatic relation between the words. The paradigmatic plane on the other hand, focuses on an analysis that is based on the paradigms or concepts that are embedded in a given text. In this case, words of the same type or class may be replaced in the text with each other to achieve the same conceptual understanding.


The objective of describing languages is to often uncover cultural knowledge about communities. The use of anthropological methods of investigation on linguistic sources leads to the discovery of certain cultural traits among a speech community through its linguistic features. It is also widely used as a tool in language documentation, with an endeavor to curate endangered languages. However, now, linguistic inquiry uses the anthropological method to understand cognitive, historical, sociolinguistic and historical processes that languages undergo as they change and evolve, as well as general anthropological inquiry uses the linguistic method to excavate into culture. In all aspects, anthropological inquiry usually uncovers the different variations and relativities that underlie the usage of language.


Most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken data and signed data is more fundamental than written data. This is because:

  • Speech appears to be universal to all human beings capable of producing and perceiving it, while there have been many cultures and speech communities that lack written communication;
  • Features appear in speech which aren't always recorded in writing, including phonological rules, sound changes, and speech errors;
  • All natural writing systems reflect a spoken language (or potentially a signed one) they are being used to write, with even pictographic scripts like Dongba writing Naxi homophones with the same pictogram, and text in writing systems used for two languages changing to fit the spoken language being recorded;
  • Speech evolved before human beings invented writing;
  • People learnt to speak and process spoken language more easily and earlier than they did with writing.

Nonetheless, linguists agree that the study of written language can be worthwhile and valuable. For research that relies on corpus linguistics and computational linguistics, written language is often much more convenient for processing large amounts of linguistic data. Large corpora of spoken language are difficult to create and hard to find, and are typically transcribed and written. In addition, linguists have turned to text-based discourse occurring in various formats of computer-mediated communication as a viable site for linguistic inquiry.

The study of writing systems themselves, graphemics, is, in any case, considered a branch of linguistics.

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