Rules vs. Lists

A. Katz amnfn at
Thu Jul 3 13:59:30 UTC 2008

Concerning memory and entrenchment, I think that the ability to memorize a
list is related to the ability to derive the list in the first place. They
are not as separate psychologically as some discussions among linguists seem
to assume.

It is easier to memorize what you understand, because memory isn't
completely passive. People who are talented at subjects such as math,
music and languages are often complimented on their good memories, because
they are able to come up with the individual items on a list faster. (The
list could be a series of numbers as in the multiplication table, or a
series of notes, as in a musical composition, or a series of words -- such
as the words to a poem). People who are less talented at these tasks
attempt passive memory work and fail. Then they attribute great memory
ability to those who surpass them at these tasks. But in fact, those who do
well are the ones who are able to re-derive any item they may have forgotten
in a split second. To know the multiplication table well does involve memory,
but is helped by the ability to instantly re-derive any entry one may have
forgotten. Great musicians do memorize the notes to a composition, but
they are greatly aided by their ability to anticipate what comes next.
They can instantly recompose any phrase they may have forgotten, because
they understand the regularity behind the composition. When we memorize a
poem written by someone else, we often rely on metrical rules and rhyme
schemes to recompose any lines we may have forgotten.

Even in ordinary conversation, when people employ idioms, cliches and set
phrases, those who can rederive them, who understand how they are put
together, are ultimately more successful at employing them to greater

Talking about greater and lesser abilities in language use by native
speakers has become taboo among linguists -- but not among people who
teach literature and foreign languages.

My observations here come from my own experiences with language use and
literature and from experiences as a teacher. I suspect that they are
echoed by the experiences of others, but it's not likely that you will
find articles written about this by linguists.



On Thu, 3 Jul 2008, Rob Freeman wrote:

> On Thu, Jul 3, 2008 at 10:48 AM, David Tuggy <david_tuggy at> wrote:
> >
> > **Yes. Such "tumbling to" moments are actually, I am sure, quite common
> > during the time when kids are learning 10 new words a day or however many it
> > is that they absorb. I certainly can attest to them when learning a
> > second/third/etc. language. But (a) They were not part of my language until
> > I had them, and (b) once I'd had them they are on the way to being
> > entrenched as conventional. When I encounter the same, or similar data again
> > I will recognize it.
> I think these "tumbling to" (ah-ha?) moments happen, on some level,
> every time we say something new.
> Indeed I think they are a model for how we say new things (to answer
> your question "Why?")
> Once something new has been said, it is on its way to being
> conventionalized. Eventually the original "tumbling to" meaning may
> become ossified and even replaced. I agree this conventionalization
> aspect has been well modeled by CG. It is also important, but is
> already being done well.
> I won't question what CG tells us about the social, conventionalized
> character of language. I'm only suggesting people consider this
> "tumbling to" aspect to language. If it occurs, how many such new
> generalizations might be made given a certain corpus of language
> examples etc.
> What it seeks to model are things which can be said. Whether something
> which can be said, only becomes "part of my language" once I have said
> it, is surely only a matter of definition.
> Just to rewind and recap a little. The question at issue here is how
> many generalizations/rules can be made about a list of examples. In
> particular whether there can be more, many more than there are
> examples. And the implications this might have for what can be said in
> a language.
> -Rob

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