Rule-List asymmetry

David Tuggy david_tuggy at
Thu Jun 19 12:32:27 UTC 2008

Treading on thin waters here, as the saying is, but anyway:

Must productivity be the *only* allowable evidence? Why can't reported 
intuition, even linguists' intuitions, be added to the list?

Martin (was it?) suggested traffic signs as a case where there are only 
lists, not rules. I immediately experienced reportable intuitions that 
there are a good many rules involved in my understanding of them, and I 
would bet that an investigator would not have a hard time inducing other 
users to report similar intuitions. (If ten of us on Funknet listed (!) 
intuited rules re traffic signs, I'll bet there would be considerable 
convergence.) Even if solitary intuitions should be easily discounted, 
must the same hold true of coincident intuitions?

Granted, I'm a linguist, and we linguists love to find rules. But 
arguably I became a linguist at least in part because I was already that 
kind of person. I know a lot of people who are not professional 
linguists who have intuitions about rules/regularities in many spheres 
of life. And when they talk about their intuitions they are likely to 
agree or disagree with each other on various points. (Thus linguistics 
was born, no doubt.) To my mind the fact that one is or is not a 
linguist should not be the main criterion for accepting or rejecting 
that person's intuitions as evidence of something, particularly as to 
the evidence of there being a rule of a certain type.

You could quite legitimately set people a production task (e.g. design a 
traffic sign to warn of a particular traffic configuration ahead) and 
use their production, especially if coincident, as evidence for rules. 
If you just wait around for them to spontaneously design signs you are 
likely to wait a long time. But of course that can happen too. (It 
probably has a time or two in my lifetime.)

Intuitions re listings are also, to my mind, allowable evidence.

Allowable evidence, *of course*, does not mean incontrovertible evidence 
or proof. It needs to be sifted, be triangulated with other sorts of 
evidence, have its significance and relevance to different parts of 
one's understanding of language evaluated. My intuition that I perceive 
a regularity may be accepted as evidence that I indeed do perceive that 
regularity in some part of my cognition, but that does not necessarily 
prove that I use it in producing the linguistic forms that the 
regularity subsumes. But in principle all allowable evidence should be 
taken into account.

Much discussion here really seems to assume that either rules only or 
lists only is some sort of default. That is precisely the point of the 
rule-list fallacy: you must logically consider (and you empirically find 
in many places) that the default is both.

--David Tuggy

dlevere at wrote:
> 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
>> (
> --------------------------------------------------------------
> This message was sent using Illinois State University Webmail.

More information about the Funknet mailing list