Rules vs. Lists

A. Katz amnfn at
Sun Jul 6 16:20:29 UTC 2008

Rob Freeman wrote:

>What we have at root are a number of utterances with a certain amount
>of variation between them. You need that variation to carry a signal,
>as you say. But the number of lexemes you allocate will depend on
>where you slice that variation. Which slice of variation you allocate
>to lexemes, which to phonemes etc. To an extent it will be arbitrary.
>The distinction between a phoneme and a lexeme is not so clear in, for
>instance, tone languages.

Why do you think the distinction between a phoneme and a lexeme is not so
clear in tone languages? Isn't tone just one attribute out many that a
vowel can have?

>That said, if we decide the slice of variation we allocate to lexemes
>corresponds broadly to conventionalized meanings, it seems reasonable
>to me that there will be a fairly consistent number across cultures
>(perhaps tending a bit higher in highly conservative cultures.) You
>could certainly get by with only five. Computers use only two. But I
>doubt there will ever be a culture sufficiently innovative that it
>will want to think of new things to say quite that often!

The fact that we can productively encode the information available in any
utterance of any language using a binary code as in a computer does not mean
that there are any human languages that actually employ a binary code of

The fact that we favor the decimal system over binary in our numerical
calculations has something to do with the limitations of our working
memory. For the same reason, there are no languages with only two
phonemes, (much less just two morphemes or two lexemes or two clauses).

Human language doesn't work that way in real time due to processing



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