Re the rule-list fallacy

Tom Givon tgivon at
Thu Jun 12 01:35:55 UTC 2008

Before everybody concedes to Martin his disdain for "cognitive", I'd 
like to maybe help him qualify his statement just a bit. Yes, we know 
people who say "cognitive" as a convenient slogan or as a sales pitch. 
No need to mention names. The test is actually quite simple: If the 
"cognitive" categories you propose are 100% isomorphic to your 
linguistic analysis done beforehand through purely linguistic methods, 
that was done with purely linguistic methods and without reference to 
the methodologically-independent neuro-cognitive literature, then 
chances are you are one of those people Martin frowns upon.

But I hope Martin knows other people too, those who don't use 
"cognitive" as a convenient label, but try to keep up with the lit. of 
both cognition and neurology, and for an excellent reason: They know (or 
is it 'suspect'?) that if you develop a theory of language without 
letting it be strongly constrained by what is known about 
neuro-cognition, there is absolutely no guarantee that your theory is 
anything but a descriptive and/or methodological convenience, or a 
formalism driven by parsimony alone.

Of course, among people who call themselves functionalists there are 
quite a few who don't want to bother with being accountable to cognition 
& neurology. We all have only one lifetime, alas. And as Leonard 
Bloomfield said, let other disciplines handle that. We'll stick to the 
facts of language. I don't begrudge people their myopia, or lack of 
ambition. But as far as I can see, we are slowly running out of purely 
linguistic facts. They are getting kinda skinny. So for people who have 
slightly more ambitious goals than just describing, I think trying to 
understand the neuro-cognition of language is a legitimate pursuit. 
After all, if you are for "usage" and "performance", where the heck do 
you think the real site of usage & performance is? Show me a language 
usage/performance outside the mind/brain & I'll show you a one-legged horse.

y'all keep on truckin', TG


David Tuggy wrote:
> Martin Haspelmath wrote:
> Thanks a lot, Brian, for this very lucid explanation of the issues 
> from a psycholinguistic point of view! I have long shared your view 
> that "in a given usage of a particular form by a given person at a 
> given moment, one seldom knows whether rules or lists applied. Only if 
> a clear productive overgeneralization occurs, and this is very rare, 
> can one know for sure that a rule or gang effect applied" (my view is 
> probably due to your influence, however indirectly!). This also makes 
> me quite skeptical of "cognitive linguistics" of any sort -- the 
> adjective "cognitive" sounds great, especially to linguists who don't 
> know much about cognition, but it probably promises more than we can 
> deliver as linguists. <snip>
> and Brian MacWhinney responded:
>> <snip> 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 
>> interplay.
> To be sure, "cognitive" can be simply an impressive but empty 
> buzzword. It can also be somewhat more legitimately used to describe a 
> linguistics that hopes to be at least cognitively plausible and at 
> best responsive to all the solid conclusions of cognitive psychology.
> In the case at hand, I do not follow Martin's logic, which I 
> understand to be going from (a) we can almost never know for sure if 
> something was produced by rote or by rule, to (b) we as linguists 
> cannot deliver on a "cognitive linguistics" of any sort. Brian's 
> answer, as well, seems to suggest that, as long as we cannot make the 
> indeterminacy vanish entirely, or at least reduce it greatly, we do 
> not have a linguistic analysis .
> What about a linguistics that would embrace the indeterminacy? What 
> about one that would say precisely "we cannot, in the absence of 
> empirical evidence, definitively say if something was produced by rote 
> or by rule"? That would refuse to say that "since some Derived 
> Nominals are related to their corresponding verbs only in an irregular 
> fashion, DN's as a class are not produced by the grammar but rather 
> listed in the lexicon " (my paraphrase of Newmeyer 1980 summarizing 
> Chomsky 1967). And that would say that when Martin Haspelmath wrote 
> "explanation" in his email of 10 June 08 at 1:49 pm, he almost 
> certainly got the word "off the shelf" (i.e. from a list), but that 
> without having measured his brain functions at that time, in ways we 
> do not yet know how to do, we cannot know for a fact that no rules or 
> gang effects were active in the process.
> In the end the question of whether a structure was produced by rote or 
> by rule doesn't seem, in many cases at least, to be crucial for 
> communication ---a speaker may use either or both and a hearer use the 
> opposite mechanism or the same one or both, and adequate communication 
> can take place. So why does it have to be crucial for linguistics?
> If I have to choose between a linguistics that is determinate 
> (absolutely predictive, yielding crisp judgements) and one that leads 
> me to expect the indeterminacies that are there empirically in 
> language, I prefer the latter.
> --David Tuggy

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