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The Prague School and North American functionalist approaches to syntax



Modern functionalist approaches to syntax were pioneered in the 1920s by the scholars associated with the Linguistic Circle of Prague and Prague-based functionalism is a dynamic force today. Nevertheless, citations of this work by North American functionalists are few and far between. This paper sets out to explain that state of affairs. It pinpoints the profound theoretical differences between mainstream North American and Czech approaches that have led to partisans of the former losing interest in the latter. The paper argues that, on the other hand, Praguian functional syntax has a great deal in common with more ‘formal’ functionalist approaches and with much work in formal semantics. Not surprisingly, then, recent years have seen increasing productive collaboration between North American and Western European practitioners of these approaches and members of the Prague School.


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Author's address: Department of Linguistics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195–4340, U.S.A. E-mail:


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I would like to thank the following individuals for their comments on a pre-final version of the paper: Wallace Chafe, Catherine Chvany, Julia Falk, Eva Hajičová, Petr Sgall, Mark Steedman and Karen Zagona. Other friends and colleagues made helpful suggestions on its subject matter and are hereby acknowledged: Edwin Battistella, Joseph Greenberg, Paul Hopper, Laurence Horn, Talmy Givón, Susumu Kuno, George Lakoff and Barbara Partee. An earlier version was presented at the Eighth International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences, held at Fontenay-aux-Roses, France, in September 1999.



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