Rule-List Fallacy

A. Katz amnfn at
Tue Jun 10 13:37:01 UTC 2008

Here is what I see as the problem with the treatment of rules and lists in
both the functionalist and the formalist camps: the assumption, seemingly
unrebuttable, of universality.

Some speakers are prone to rely heavily on lists; others rely heavily on
rules. Some languages are highly regular, and others are highly irregular.
(I am using "regular" here in the etymological sense of "rule-based.)
Turkish and Hebrew are highly regular languages, and they promote
rule-based behavior in their speakers. English has its regular vestiges,
but it is tending toward irregularity, and this promotes list-based
behavior on the part of its speakers.

But besides language difference, there are also individual differences in
language processing. Highly social people tend to jump ahead and try to
determine from context what an utterance must have meant. Relatively
asocial people, such as high functioning autistics, process in a more
rule-based manner, and they tend to interpret utterance in this way. They
also generate "stiff and pedantic" language specimens.

The different strategies used by different speakers to interpret the same
language point to the fact that there is more to language than the
behavior of speakers. Context induced reinterpretation, one of the
mechanisms that fosters grammaticalization, can only be possible if there
is something there to be interpreted -- something independent of the mind
or brain of the person who generated the utterance.



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