Public Linguistics Presentation Q

Tahir Wood twood at
Thu Jun 13 07:41:01 UTC 2013

>>> Ellen Contini-Morava <elc9j at> 6/12/2013 7:42 pm >>>
People also find it cool to discover that they know "rules" that they're 
not aware of knowing, and that these even apply to nonstandard 

Ooh! You've hit right on my current favourite debating topic. You may just be referring to something called 'constitutive rules'. I don't believe that any such things exist and I would really like to canvass other opinions. I'm working at producing a comprehensive manuscript on this soon, but let me just make the main point briefly.

I would say that the only sorts of rules that exist in language apart from 'regulative rules' (prescriptions basically) are descriptions of regularities. If that's what you mean then I'm with you. But if you mean Searlean constitutive rules then you must be committed to rules as causal or 'creative'. The rules in that case create the regularities, don't just describe them. If so, than I think this is dead wrong. The approach is unscientific because it formulates a rule after having observed a regularity and then it backtracks to say the rule caused the regularity. At best one has a Humean causality in that case: X behaves in manner Y in context C, just because all Xs do. Oops. Constant conjunction redux.

OK then, one may ask, what about Searle's linguistic example (his only real one as far as I know) around the nasal consonants in 'finger' and 'singer' respectively? The rule is that the velar stop occurs after the nasal whenever the word is not  a noun formed from a verb. Isn't this a clincher? Actually, no, it's not. All the rule has done is describe a pattern not 'created' (Searle's word) it. So what does create it? That is precisely the true scientific question. I think what is at stake is something like Bourdieu's habitus, which I would like to draw into linguistics and then explore further. I wonder if anyone else is interested in this?

You see, what I have admired in cognitive linguistics is that it has dispensed with Chomskyan rules in explanations of syntax and semantics. That is still very far from a reality in pragmatics unfortunately, which still tends to suffer under the weight of Searlean and Gricean philosophy, but a change is surely gonna come.

If no-one objects I might just take this debate onto cogling as well. But let me say I appreciate the scare quotes around 'rules' and the important reference to nonstandard varieties, where Searle sees only mispronunciation.


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