Rule-List Fallacy

Brian MacWhinney macw at
Tue Jun 10 19:20:03 UTC 2008

Dear Edith and Martin,

    I think Martin makes an excellent point by emphasizing the  
phylogenetic primacy of rote.  In that sense, perhaps there is a null  
hypothesis.  I definitely see his point.  Finding real syntactic rules  
in monkeys is a pretty tall order.  But, maybe we need to think about  
this in more perceptual terms, along the lines Edith suggests.   If we  
go back to real basics phylogenetically, we want to think about  
stimulus-response pairings such as the response of the female firefly  
to the shape of the blinking pattern of the male.  To make this work,  
the series of blinks are more or less hard-wired into a single  
receptor neuron chain in the female.  But, at this point, I wonder if  
we really have neither lists or rules, but rather the primordial  
neural soup from which both lists (unanalyzed amalgams) and rules  
(combined pieces) arise.  At this point, I think that Edith's points  
are the crucial ones.  Indeed, everything can be seen in terms of  
either its pieces or as a whole.  Even more remarkably, it appears  
that the brain has come to provide methods for both forms of  
analysis.  Don Tucker (Tom's neuropsychologist colleague at Oregon)  
likes to emphasize the interplay between the ventral path that tends  
to tear down items into their pieces and the dorsal path that  
assembles wholes.  Unsurprisingly, it is the ventral path in humans  
that appears to be the one where rules are most clearly assembled.
     Others point to punctate processing in the left hemisphere and  
wholistic processing in the right.  In general, the brain seems to  
follow these divisions between yin and yang with a vengeance.  Given  
this, is it surprising to see this interplay being played out in  
language, both in conversation and across historical change?
   But, yes, Martin I also sympathize with your wariness of the  
application of the term "cognitive" as a magic wand for linguistic  
analysis.  I think the hope is that corpora and richer streams of data  
recording can help us reduce this huge indeterminacy, but I can't see  
how it would ever vanish entirely, given the complex dynamics of the  

--Brian MacWhinney

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