Rule-List asymmetry

Matthew Dryer dryer at
Fri Jun 20 11:38:59 UTC 2008

I realize that I have probably misrepresented Bruce Derwing's position. 
While it is true that he argued that the burden of proof on those who claim 
that there are rules in particular cases is to provide empirical evidence 
that there are rules rather than lists, he did so only because the 
prevalent practice was (and is) to assume rules without any evidence for 
such, not because he considered lists the default.  If there had been 
people claiming in particular instances that people only stored lists and 
saw no reason to provide any empirical evidence for that claim, I believe 
Derwing would have raised the same objection, in effect "You have to 
provide empirical evidence; you cannot simply claim that on a priori 

In other words, in the absence of empirical evidence in a particular 
instance whether there is a list or a rule, rather than saying "In the 
absence of empirical evidence, we should assume there is just a list" we 
should be saying instead "In the absence of empirical evidence, we 
shouldn't assume anything; we should look for empirical evidence."

So while Martin may be right that at some abstract level, lists are 
logically more basic than rules, this is ultimately beside the point.  It 
does not justify assuming in any particular instance in the absence of 
empirical evidence that there is a list rather than a rule.  To do so runs 
the risk of committing the error that Derwing argued against, namely that 
of deciding an empirical issue on a priori grounds.

And that is why I think Tom was right when he said that in arguing which 
was the default, we were gravitating towards an empirical vacuum.


--On Thursday, June 19, 2008 9:10 AM +0200 Martin Haspelmath 
<haspelmath at> 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
> --
> 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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