Rule-List asymmetry

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at
Thu Jun 19 07:10:55 UTC 2008

It seems that some people still have not seen my original point, which 
surprises me.

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
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6	
D-04103 Leipzig      
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616

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