Rule-List asymmetry

Tom Givon tgivon at
Thu Jun 19 11:51:20 UTC 2008

Well, I suppose Martin is right in a clear sense: One cannot generalize 
(make 'rules') on data unless one first has the data ('list'). That much 
is obviously a matter of logic. Note, however, that the minute the 
single list is divided into sub-categories ('sub-lists'), one has 
already begun to 'make rules'. I myself don't know a single cognitive 
system, however primitive (say, the amoeba), that has only a "list" in 
this logical sense. The amoeba already divides the 'list' of  external 
input into temperature data, salt-concentration data, physical contact 
(touch) data, light data, etc. These are the categories it reacts to, 
differentially And it is obvious why it must sub-categorize, 
immediately--like all organisms, it needs to decide what the best 
*adaptive response* should be to the various sub-categories of 
input/context. What else are sub-categories good for? So the amoeba 
already has behavioral rules of the form "If category X, do Y", "If 
category P, do Q", etc.

In child language studies (say Carter 1974), it appears that during the 
so-called "sensory-motor period"( 0-9 months) human neonates organize 
incoming input into the rudiment 'theoris' of what Geary (2007) call 
'folks physics', 'folk biology' and 'folk psychology'. I think Alison 
Gopnik has a wonderful book called "The Scientist in the Crib" that 
touches on this too. What is more, child language data on lexicalization 
(my colleague Dare Baldwin has written on this extensively) suggest that 
children don't wait for a long cumulative list before they start 
categorizing. They start virtual;ly from item #2 (or 1?). So maybe 
Alison Gopnick should have changed the title of her book to "The 
Linguist in the Crib"? Clearly, the amoeba is hardly the only organism 
that finds a mere 'list' adaptively useless, let alone dangerous to her 

So--linguists notwithstanding--it seems to me that saying that "mere 
lists" can exist in any meaningful way without some categorization 
('rules') is a funny exercise in a mock-Aristotelian denial of reality. 
Best,  TG


Martin Haspelmath wrote:
> 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

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