Rule-List asymmetry

Daniel Everett dlevere at
Thu Jun 19 09:01:38 UTC 2008

Peter Culicover, among others, has made related points in his book  
Syntactic Nuts.

The question re: grammars that interests me most is just this: what do  
rules add empirically that we otherwise lack? We know that children  
and others have to learn arbitrary lists. (And presumably a great deal  
of language must be learned in this way). The question is whether the  
learning mechanism responsible for this arbitrary learning needs to be  
supplemented by a second mechanism or Language Acquisition Device.

The principal selling point of the LAD is to be able to account for  
'infinite use of finite means' (a phrase howbeit devoid of meaning it  
seems to me), which is supposed to account for speed of acquisition  
and many universals, among other things. Now, it is reasonable to  
claim that linguists' outputs, grammars, often predict infinite  
languages as a function of their goal of elegance (rules and schema  
are more elegant to some than lists). But no one has proven that any  
human language is infinite (though some of us have given reasonable  
evidence that there might be finite languages), only that the shortest  
grammars predict infinite languages (an example, most likely, of  
overgeneration, again in favor of elegance of presentation).

So I believe that Martin's point is very strong.

-- Dan

Quoting Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at>:

> 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
> -- 
> 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
> Glottopedia - the free encyclopedia of linguistics
> (

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