haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Thu Jun 19 07:10:55 UTC 2008
It seems that some people still have not seen my original point, which
Thus, Matthew Dryer wrote:
> I think Tom's quite right about the issue of what is the default being
> something of a red herring.
And Aya Katz wrote:
> But in scientific enquiry, why do we need a burden of proof? Wouldn't it
> be better to avoid bias altogether?
My claim was and is that in the study of semiotic systems such as
language, the burden of proof is on those who want to claim that rules
exist. Those who claim that lists exist do not have this burden of
proof, because lists are the default, and there is an inherent bias in
favour of them.
Rules and lists simply do not have the same status. Semiotic systems
with lists and no rules are perfectly possible (and widely attested,
e.g. traffic signs), but semiotic systems with rules and no lists are
logically impossible. Rules have to range over a certain domain, and the
domain must be defined in terms of lists. There is no symmetry here.
Sorry, Tom, this is not an empirical argument, it's a logical argument.
Perhaps it's not particularly interesting, because everyone of course
agrees that languages have lists. I just made this argument because
Fritz Newmeyer had claimed that Sandy Thompson was guilty of the
rule-list fallacy: Assuming that there are no rules just because
everything can be explained by lists. But this is not true: If speaker
behaviour can be fully explained by assuming only lists, it is indeed
reasonable to assume that no rules exist. (Conversely, it is never
possible to claim that speaker behaviour is fully explained by rules and
no lists are needed. Some lists are always needed.)
I think this point is important because as Matthew Dryer pointed out
(citing Bruce Derwing), linguists have generally been very eager to find
rules, which is OK, because that is their job. But they have often (too
often) jumped to the conclusion that speakers also have these rules,
without any evidence. It has been widely assumed that speakers are as
eager to extract generalizations from the data as linguists, but this is
not reasonable. Speakers just want to talk. If they can get away with
just lists, they might well do without rules. Any claim about speakers
that goes beyond lists needs additional evidence.
The reason why linguists generally agree that there are both lists and
rules is that this evidence is often easy to come by: Speakers exhibit
abundant productivity in different areas of language structure:
especially in syntax and phonology, but often also in morphology. As
soon as we observe productivity, we have knock-down evidence for rules.
The only question is what we say in the absence of productivity, and of
course how exactly we diagnose productivity; if we rule out experimental
evidence and try to rely exclusively on natural discourse data, as Sandy
Thompson seems to be doing, it's not so easy to find evidence for
productivity. In the absence of productivity, providing a proof for
rules is a very heavy burden indeed.
Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at eva.mpg.de)
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616
Glottopedia - the free encyclopedia of linguistics
More information about the Funknet