LINGUIST List 3.473

Tue 09 Jun 1992

Disc: Rules, Innateness

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  1. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 3.466 Rules
  2. , Rules: abnormal constructions
  3. "Michael Kac", Re: 3.459 Rules
  4. Stephen Ryberg, innateness and simplicity

Message 1: Re: 3.466 Rules

Date: Sat, 06 Jun 92 11:16 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.466 Rules

re Helge Dyvik: I was defining 'normative' as equivalent to 'prescriptive'
-- Sorry.

Re Benjy Wald -- Of course what counts as a speech error in one
dialect will not necessarily count as a speech error in another. The
examples I cited were all spoken (and most corrected) by speakers
of what some would call standard American English although two were
produced by speakers of British RP. When checking as to what
people consider speech errors we obviously have to test with speakers of
the same dialect unless we are interested in the differences in dialecta
grammars. My point is simply that in order to judge something as an
error, one must have a set of principles/rules/constraints in one's
mental grammar which determine what is or is not ill formed according
to that grammar (not someone else's).

An addendum to this comment: One can accept
the 'reality' of rules (or whatever one wishes to call them) -- that
is the existence of a mental grammar, or if you like I-Language, without
accepting the notion of innateness. They are two separate questions.
I happen to accept both but many will accept the fact that knowing a
language (however acquired, UG + parameter values + lexicon etc; or
all acquired with no innate UG) means having in memory, in one's
mind, a cognitive system which is called a grammar by a lot of us.
Vicki Fromkin
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Message 2: Rules: abnormal constructions

Date: Sun, 7 Jun 1992 9:55:56 GMRules: abnormal constructions
Subject: Rules: abnormal constructions

So nice a leg-pull from David Stampe that we may forget that real
borderline-normal grammar can be almost as weird. A case in point
is the very widespread double-be phenomenon that got some airplay
on Linguist a while back e.g.

The main point is is that...
What I want to stress is is that...

This is becoming close to normal in most English speaking
countries (I saw a speaker of Indian English in India produce one
the other day on TV). It may have some explanation in terms of
blending (various scenarios have been suggested including by me)
but the point is more the extreme difficulty of coping with it in
a standard type English grammar or even any plausible variant of
it. Hence we would like to keep it in the "performance error"

In terms of categorising it, it still has some behavioural
characteristics associated with "abnormality" e.g denial by
speakers that they say it, or statements that it is odd while
using it. However I think younger speakers are losing any
reaction to it as weird.

Bolinger suggested to me that this is a phenomenon that has been
bubbling away for years but has never made it to acceptable
status. If we wanted to be bold we could hypothesise that there
is a principled reason for this e.g. it is highly marked in terms
of some UG principle and/or it creates unacceptable
contradictions in some key parts of English grammar. We would
have to be bold because we could soon wake up and find 90% of
English speakers using it, although it may still not feature in
English grammars.

Talking of some new "abnormal" forms as "anticipations of change"
as Benji Wald does, brings in a dangerous teleology. As in the
above case, how do we know that the phenomenon is leading towards
categorical change? (It may be that Wald is just using a
convenient way of talking, but it is risky nonetheless).

A theory of linguistic development somewhat along the lines of
Lightfoots' where UG (among other things of a communicative
nature, I would say) imposes restrictions not on everything that
turns up in a language, but on what gets solidly incorporated in
the long term would be useful, and parallel to some evolutionist
thought. Such a theory would allow us to legitimately refer to
"abnormalities" as "anticipations of change" by hypothesis using
whatever predictive power the theory has. There seem to be
currently big differences between linguists about how much
idiomaticity-constructionism-rule flouting a language can
tolerate and some claims that some languages do very much more of
it than others, however.

Patrick McConvell, Anthropology, Northern Territory University,
PO Box 40146, Casuarina, NT 0811, Australia
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Message 3: Re: 3.459 Rules

Date: Mon, 8 Jun 92 16:46:05 -05Re: 3.459 Rules
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Re: 3.459 Rules

Re Rob Stainton's observation about the normativity of psychology: Itkonen,
in the first pages of *Grammatical Theory and Metascience* makes exactly this
point (thousgh he does so via the notion of intention rather than desxire).
And yes, there are disciploines other than linguistics (or psychology) in
which normativity plays a part: logic, e.g.

Michael Kac
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Message 4: innateness and simplicity

Date: Sat, 6 Jun 92 10:32:44 CDTinnateness and simplicity
From: Stephen Ryberg <>
Subject: innateness and simplicity

Dick Hudson writes:

> For those of us who are sceptical about
> innateness, it's really worrying if we have to postulate some very
> abstract and complicated principle in our theory. Sometimes you have
> to admit defeat, but you at least recognise it as defeat, and a sign
> that something is badly wrong with your general theory. But if you
> believe in innateness, there's no problem - on the contrary, you can
> be pleased to have discovered yet more evidence that language is weird
> (i.e. unique) and unlearnable.

I agree with the notion that innateness can be too easy an escape hatch
when it comes time to sit back and judge a particular model of language.
I'd like to mention two related points on which I believe there is some

On the one hand there is the basic connection between abstract/
complicated/weird principles and innateness that Mr. Hudson mentions.
But I have heard linguists who are _not_ skeptical about innateness
make statements to the effect that the simplest model of language
is the most desirable, in order to make aspects of language acquisition
and use easier for the learner. This has always struck me as being odd:
one would think that if language was innate, the learner wouldn't have a
reason to care how complex its principles were. Perhaps such statements
are merely not well thought out or too loosely worded. Or perhaps they
indicate that some who profess not to be skeptical of innatism show their
true colors in nevertheless worrying about the level of complexity and
abstraction currently in a given model.

I think there's a third possible source for such statements, and this
relates to the second point I wanted to bring up for discussion. It seems
to me that quite a number of linguists confuse the distinction between the
desire for the simplest model of language, and language in reality.
The former is based solely on principles like Occam's Razor, heuristics
by which we construct models of reality in order to better grasp and
understand reality. The latter, language in reality (like anything in
reality), can operate however it wants to (for lack of a better phrase),
and is in no way required to operate according to Occam's Razor, or our
heuristics. This is not to say that we should junk those heuristics, just
to point out that that's what they are, and that there's an important
distinction between them and reality.

When we make the leap to discussing language in reality by positing
innatism, we must be careful not to simply carry the results of our
heuristics wholesale into our discussion of reality. Yet I have heard this
being done by linguists, and I think this misguided notion that language
the reality _is_ subject to our heuristics is the most likely cause of
statements in which simplicity of the model is linked to such real-world
issues as making things easy for the learner.

I believe it's important to clear up the confusion on this point, because I
don't think it concerns just a few statements which have not been thought
out too well. From my experience as as student, I don't believe I'm the
only one who has found this confusion rather difficult to recognize and
work out. (Though maybe you'll all show me that I still haven't done
that!) In fact, I think it's this confusion, coupled with insufficient
discussion of the grounds for innatism in general, that has led to the
somewhat bizarre view (which I've heard on multiple occasions) that
simplicity in a model is also an argument for innatism. (I'm not sure I
could work out the unusual logic behind this view.)

Stephen Ryberg
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