Wolfgang Butzkamm

Generative principle

(in Michael Byram (Hrsg.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning, London and New York: Routledge, 232-234.)

The generative principle refers to the human capacity to generate an infinite number of sentences from a finite grammatical competence. It reflects the crucial feature of human language sometimes called compositionality. Meanings are built out of parts and from the way these parts are combined. A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences. Thus, human language as a sequential combinatorial system is a powerhouse of potential meaning which ensures that we never run out of new ideas. Nothing like this can be found in animal communication. The most impressive formulation of the generative power of language is probably that found in Wilhelm von *Humboldt’s philosophy of language. For him, the quintessential property of language was energeia, its productive potential or creativity:


‘ Denn sie (die Sprache) steht ganz eigentlich einem unendlichen und wahrhaft grenzenlosen Gebiete, dem Inbegriff alles Denkbaren gegenüber. Sie muss daher von endlichen Mitteln einen unendlichen Gebrauch machen, und vermag dies durch die Identität der Gedanken- und Spracheerzeugenden Kraft.’ ( ‘For it (language) is confronted with an essentially infinite and truly unbounded territory, the quintessence of everything which can be thought. It must thus make infinite use of finite means, and it achieves this through the identity of the power to produce both thoughts and speech.’)

(Humboldt, 1963: 477)


Throughout the history of the profession, teachers have intuitively sensed the importance of the generative principle and have tried to teach in ways which will turn word combinations into syntactical germ-cells and sentences into models for many more sentences. Children themselves, in their process of first-language acquisition, have been observed to play the same sort of analogy game, varying words or word groups during phases of essentially non-communicative, purely verbal play in ways reminiscent of pattern drills. However, teachers have often encountered difficulties when using systematic conjugations not just of verbs but also of lengthy sentences, or, as a modern variety of the same idea, pattern drills. Such exercises have often turned out to be mechanical and monotonous, emphasising the danger of working with isolated sentences at the expense of message-oriented communication. This has raised the question as to whether successful practice on sentences and their variations can really further communicative competence.

The problem seems to be that Humboldt’s energeia is usually only familiar in its abbreviated formulation ‘making infinite use of finite means’ and is thus interpreted in structuralist or syntactical terms only. This holds for linguists of the past, such as Prendergast (1864) and *Palmer, who were well aware of the generative principle, as well as for twentieth-century advocates of pattern drills. To capture this aspect of language, Palmer (1917/1968: 22) coined the term ergon and explained it in the following way: ‘The number of sentences being infinite, recourse must be had to the study of their mechanism in order that, from the relatively limited number of lesser ergons, an infinite number of sentences may be composed at will.’ He chided *Berlitz for not realising ‘the necessity for the pupil to mechanise type-sentences and to derive from these an unlimited number of subsidiary sentences and combinations’ (Palmer 1925: 7).

What was overlooked was that Humboldt’s energeia was not just about grammar but was at the same time also about language as a thought crutch, even a thought organ. Pattern drills, as well as substitution tables, were aimed at the automatization of structures. They were thought of as the manipulation of verbal elements, not the manipulation of ideas. This is where conflicts with the interests of the communicative approach derive from..

However, modern techniques have meanwhile been devised where sentence drills have a dual focus, and lexical substitutions are not regarded as mere fillers. Structures are manipulated, but at the same time ideas are played with and the semantic potential of a given structure is explored. (Butzkamm 1989 / 1993). For instance, German and French students need practice on the question pattern ‘Where does he live’ because they have a tendency to say ‘Where lives he’. Instead of merely consolidating structure by listing the different habits or routines embodied in easy words which will fill the slot, the teacher can personalise the structure by getting the students to produce variations which have particular significance for them. Students will have more attention to spare for the meaning of what they are saying and even identify directly with the ideas expressed:


Where does he do his body-building? (He looks like Mr Universe and is proud of it)

Where does he go for his guitar lessons? (He is an excellent player)

Where does she buy her wines? (She once treated us to a very good wine)


This will ensure not only that students perform well in the drill, but also that they are made aware of possibilities for communication. They have been provided with ideas of what they can say and do with a structure. At the same time, pupils must learn how far they can ride a given pattern. The teacher-cued drills should be followed by the simple and time-honoured practice of asking students to make up sentences of their own, which again is a means of shifting focus away from the grammatical point and towards the meanings expressed. (Allen 1972). Sentence variations can be a stepping stone towards the free communication ultimately aimed for.

Although it is, as Howatt (1984: 149) points out, ‘an ancient principle’, the generative principle has been neglected because it has not been properly understood. The fact has been overlooked that a combinatorics of words is not an end in itself but serves a combinatorics of thoughts. Once we are aware of the problem, appropriate techniques can be found and a balance achieved between a powerful communicative principle and an equally powerful generative principle - as companions rather than as opposites.


(See also: audio-lingual language teaching, bilingual method, pattern practice, transfer,)


Allen, R. 1972. ‘Using Drills Creatively’. English Teaching Forum 6: 4-13.

Butzkamm, W. (1993) Psycholingustik des Fremdsprachenunterrichts: Natürliche Künstlichkeit: Von der Muttersprache zur Fremdsprache (2 nd edition), Tübingen: Francke .

Humboldt, W.v., Werke in fünf Bänden, (1963) Flitner, A. & Giel, K.(eds). Vol. 3: Schriften zur Sprachphilosophie, Stuttgart: Cotta'sche Buchhandlung.

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984) A History of English Language Teaching, Oxford: OUP.

Palmer, H. (1968) The Scientific Study and Teaching of languages, Oxford: OUP (2 nd edition); London: Harrap 1917 (1 st edition).

Palmer, H.E. and Palmer, D. (1925) English Through Actions, London: Longman.

Prendergast, T. (1864) The mastery of languages, or, the art of speaking foreign tongues idiomatically, London: R. Bentley .


Further Reading

Cross, D. (1992) A practical handbook of language teaching. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.