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LING 8580

Seminar in Computational Linguistics
Credit Hours:
3 (Repeatable for up to 9 hours of credit maximum)

Special topics and current issues in computational linguistics. Offered fall and spring semester every even-numbered year.

This year the Computational Linguistics Seminar will focus on a topic that cuts across many different ways of studying natural language: the (apparent?) conflict between Functionalist and Formalist explanation. To a first approximation, Functionalist explanations appeal to factors outside the language system itself, for instance to the use value that an utterance has for communication. By contrast Formalists strive to explain the facts of natural language by appeal to a self-contained, deductive system “formulated in a vocabulary of nonsemantic structural primitives” (Newmeyer). These two kinds of explanation continue to enjoy popularity across diverse subfields of modern linguistics; it is therefore important that professionals in the field learn to grapple with both of them.

Seminar participants engage with Functionalism and Formalism through reading and discussion. We examine particular phenomena, for instance in language typology among other areas, from both Formalist and Functionalist perspectives. Towards the end of the semester, students write a final paper on a topic that is mutually acceptable to instructor and student.

Unlike in previous years, the Spring 2024 Seminar will not require any background in computational linguistics. However it will assess Large Language Models, such as ChatGPT, as potential models of Functionalist linguistic theory. The view of such systems as models of Functionalist theory gains plausibility, if we reduce the notion of usage in a particular speech community to attestation in a (textual) corpus. Via this connection, the Seminar provides a natural follow-up to Fall 2023 Text and Corpus Analysis class.

DIAGRAM from Functionalism in Linguistics, edited by René Dirven and Vilém Fried. John Benjamins 1987.



  • Christopher S. Butler. 2005. Functional approaches to language. In The Dynamics of Language Use: Functional and Contrasting Perspectives edited by Christopher S. Butler, María de los Ángeles Gómez-González and Susana M. Doval-Suárez.
  • John A. Hawkins. 2014. Cross-linguistic Variation and Efficiency. Oxford University Press.
  • Natalia Levshina. 2022. Communicative Efficiency: language structure and use. Cambridge University Press.
  • Frederick Newmeyer. 2017. Formal and Functional Explanation. Chapter 7 in the Oxford Handbook of Universal Grammar edited by Ian Roberts. 
  • Michelle Sheehan, Theresa Biberauer, Ian Roberts and Anders Holmberg. 2017. The Final-Over-Final Condition: a syntactic universal. MIT Press
  • Margaret Thomas. 2020. Formalism and Functionalism in Linguistics. Routledge.
Permission of department
Semester Offered:

Instructors of this Course

Arch Professor in World Languages and Cultures

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