SV: [FUNKNET] Rule-List asymmetry

Peter Harder harder at
Fri Jun 20 14:36:58 UTC 2008

There is a sense in which it is fairly obvious that rules exist. This is already implicit in Martin's reference to systems that consist only of lists, such as traffic signs - which invites the inference that human languages are not of that kind.


If you do not subscribe to a generative view of linguistic rules, you have the problem that there is no agreed precise alternative for what a rule then is. However, consider a messy informal 'direction-for-use' rule such as "after verbs like say or think you can put a that-clauses, indicating the propositional content of what was said or thought".  This can only be an empirically misguided description of English if speakers never combine verbs and complement clauses freely, and  invariably limit themselves to repeating whole statements that they have heard previously and added to their lists of possible utterances, like lists of traffic signs in driver's manuals. Not all speakers do that, so it follows that English has rules of that kind.


This does not answer the question of the psychological reality of rules, or of the less exalted semi-general combination strategies that functionalists might be satisfied with instead of fully general rules. But if we pursue the same abstract agenda as Martin, we can say that this is an extra issue that is external to the semiotic system as a set of social options available to speakers of English. You cannot make full use of the options offered by the English language, if your cognitive system works only by listing. Therefore listing as a theory of how English works (as a public code) does not cover all there is to say about it. This is, of course, a very modest level of abstraction to be working at, but the way I see it, it gets us just a little beyond total agnosticism with respect to the existence of anything beyond lists.


Peter Harder



Fra: funknet-bounces at på vegne af dryer at
Sendt: fr 20-06-2008 13:38
Til: Martin Haspelmath; funknet at
Emne: Re: [FUNKNET] Rule-List asymmetry

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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