The ontology of rules

Wallace Chafe chafe at
Fri Jun 14 04:24:35 UTC 2013

These messages have lifted my spirits. I’ve always felt this way about 
“rules”, and I still remember futile discussions about them during the 
1960s when people were especially rule happy.

The issue has arisen for me lately with respect to “phonological rules”, 
which are nothing more than statements of sound changes that give a 
fusional language the shape it has. I’ve been struggling in vain to keep 
people from calling them rules, and it’s hard not to feel like giving up.


O n 6/13/2013 10:03 AM, Ellen Contini-Morava wrote:

> I confess that convincing a public audience that (even) non-standard 
> varieties have "rules" itself panders to the hegemonic language 
> ideology that having reified "rules" is a badge of legitimacy. But one 
> has to pick one's battles; there's only so much that can be done in an 
> hour. (See Michael Silverstein, 1996. “Monoglot ‘Standard’ in America: 
> Standardization and Metaphors of Linguistic Hegemony.” In D. Brenneis 
> and R. Macauley, eds. The Matrix of Language: Contemporary Linguistic 
> Anthropology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Pp. 284-306.)
> Ellen
> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
> Ellen Contini-Morava
> Professor, Department of Anthropology
> University of Virginia
> P.O. Box 400120
> Charlottesville, VA 22904-4120
> phone:  +1 (434) 924-6825
> fax:    +1 (434) 924-1350
> On 6/13/2013 8:12 AM, Ellen Contini-Morava wrote:
>> Oh dear, to be accused of believing in determinative rules! I'm glad 
>> you noticed the scare quotes, which were there exactly to place the 
>> word in others' mouths (such as those of the likely audience of 
>> Shannon's talk). My point was that people find it illuminating to 
>> discover that there are indeed regularities that they may be aware 
>> of, in some sense, without being conscious of, and simultaneously 
>> that nonstandard varieties are not chaotic. Right now we're awaiting 
>> some major thunderstorms with threat of tornados so I'll limit this 
>> post to referring you to my response to Wally Reid's paper debunking 
>> the English verb "agreement rule" (Reid: "The communicative function 
>> of English verb number", Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 29, 
>> 2011: 1087-1146); Ellen C-M: "And now for something completely 
>> different: Reid on English verb number", pp. 1147-1162 of the same 
>> issue).
>> Ellen
>> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
>> Ellen Contini-Morava
>> Professor, Department of Anthropology
>> University of Virginia
>> P.O. Box 400120
>> Charlottesville, VA 22904-4120
>> USA
>> phone: +1 (434) 924-6825
>> fax: +1 (434) 924-1350
>> On 6/13/2013 3:41 AM, Tahir Wood wrote:
>>>>>> Ellen Contini-Morava <elc9j at> 6/12/7:42 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
>>> varieties.
>>> 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.
>>> Best
>>> Tahir

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