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Justifying the evidential use of linguistic intuitions


Linguistic intuitive judgements are the de facto data source of choice within generative linguistics. But why we are justified in relying on intuitive judgements as evidence for grammars? In the philosophy of linguistics, this question has been hotly debated. I argue that the three most prominent views of that debate all have their problems. Devitt’s Modest Explanation accounts for the wrong kind of intuitive judgements. The Voice of Competence view and Rey’s account both lack independent evidence. I introduce and defend a novel proposal that accounts for the evidential role of linguistic intuitive judgements and avoids these shortcomings. On this account, linguistic intuitive judgements are reports of the speaker’s immediate experience of trying to comprehend the sentence. This experience is due to the speaker’s linguistic competence, at least in part, and so the justification for the evidential use of linguistic intuitions ultimately comes from the speaker’s competence. However, the account does not rely on any special input from the speaker’s competence being available as the basis for linguistic intuitive judgements.

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  1. 1.

    Intuitive judgements about a range of different aspects of utterances are used as evidence within different fields in linguistics, but in this paper I will only be concerned with intuitive judgements of the morphosyntactic well-formedness of sentences.

  2. 2.

    Although Rey uses “VoC” to refer to his own view which, as we shall see, differs from what Devitt calls VoC, in the following, I use “VoC” specifically to refer to the view characterised by Devitt.

  3. 3.

    Whether we should collect judgements of acceptability or grammaticality is debated, see, e.g., the mentioned exchange between Devitt and Culbertson and Gross. In this paper, at least until Sect. 4.3, I use the terms interchangeably.

  4. 4.

    In the remainder of the paper, I will refer to this phenomenon simply as “hearing” or as “hearing a sentence a certain way”.

  5. 5.

    While one could argue that this example is, perhaps, not central to the interests of most generative syntacticians as it centres on non-syntactic variation, it nonetheless illustrates my point: that if repair in conversations was based on meta-linguistic intuitive judgements, then these speakers should be expected to correct themselves. Since they do not, this points to repair being made on some other basis than meta-linguistic intuitive judgements.

  6. 6.

    In the following sections, I will argue that in many cases, meta-linguistic intuitive judgements are based on the experience of “hearing” a sentence a certain way, which is also what I believe causes corrections like self-repair. In the Labov example above, however, this cannot be the case, as the lack of self-repair and the negative judgements point in different directions. I take it that this is a case where the process of coming up with a meta-linguistic intuitive judgement goes wrong and is influenced by irrelevant factors. I discuss this possibility in Sect. 4.3.

  7. 7.

    I am not sure whether the rules proposed by generative linguists are generally hypothesised to be implemented or just respected; the distinction does not seem to be regularly discussed. Here I mainly want to clarify my own position.

  8. 8.

    Luka’s model is referenced briefly in Maynes and Gross (2013). Luka and Barsalou (2005) mention some of the same ideas.

  9. 9.

    One could object that learning an artificial grammar in an experiment is qualitatively different from learning one’s native language (and that the resulting implicit knowledge of such an artificial grammar is different from the implicit knowledge that one has of one’s native language). How this objection plays out might depend on one’s theory of language acquisition, e.g., Universal Grammar or usage-based approaches. I will not be able to argue for one position over the other here, but suffice it to say that artificial grammar learning experiments will be most useful if the artificial grammar used resembles natural languages as much as possible (in whatever way is relevant on one’s preferred theory of acquisition).

  10. 10.

    Featherston (2007, p. 294) proposes that intuitive judgements track “computational effort”, which is similar to Luka’s proposal that perceived ease of processing plays a role for intuitive judgements through affective evaluations.

  11. 11.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing this point.

  12. 12.

    I want to acknowledge the possibility that this disagreement is more of a terminological difference than a substantial one, but if it is substantial, I believe it is related to the next and final point.

  13. 13.

    Devitt (2010b) points to the fact that there is a large overlap between a speaker’s prescribed language and their actual language. So, although a few judgements might be based on the prescribed grammar, on the whole most should be based on the speaker’s experience with their actual grammar, in his view.

  14. 14.

    Culbertson and Gross (2009, p. 734) write in the instructions to the participants in their study: “Here, we are interested in your linguistic intuitions, not in the rules of ‘proper English’ that you might have been taught in school.”

  15. 15.

    It is possible that this is the explanation for Labov’s (1975) observation, mentioned in Sect. 3.1 above, that some speakers who themselves use the positive “anymore” construction deny its acceptability when asked about it.

  16. 16.

    The authors of one of the studies he cites seem to be slightly more cautious, however. Ferreira et al. (2001) write: “this misinterpretation effect is somewhat selective. It does not survive if the misinterpretation is implausible”. The authors also suggest that “people are often satisfied with inaccurate representations based on incomplete processing of the sentence”, meaning that subjects might not have noticed that the full sentences is semantically incompatible with their initial interpretation.

  17. 17.

    The argument that experts’ intuitive judgements make for better evidence than those of lay subjects is made within meta-philosophy and the Experimental Philosophy debate as well (see, e.g., Nado 2014 for a discussion).

  18. 18.

    The first option roughly corresponds to the proposal of Weinberg et al. (2010) that philosophers’ expertise with intuitive judgements could plausibly consist in practical know-how about considering hypotheticals. The second option is roughly parallel to their suggestion that this expertise could come down to the “evaluative component of the intuiting process” (Weinberg et al. 2010, p. 346), either through better conceptual schemata (“concepts”) or mastery of entrenched theories.

  19. 19.

    Note that this is not necessarily a question of giving lay subjects explicit “knowledge that” about how to perform the task but rather about designing materials in such a way that subjects will be responding to the issue of interest, whether they explicitly know that this is what they are doing or not. Linguistic experiments performed with children as subjects provide nice examples of how test materials and the experimental set-up can compensate for subjects’ lack of explicit “knowledge that” about what the task is.


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This work was carried out within the project Intuitions in Science and Philosophy, which was funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF 4180-00071). Thanks to PI Samuel Schindler as well as Anna Drożdżowicz for comments on various versions of this paper. Thanks also to Michael Devitt and Georges Rey for generously discussing their views with me. Any lingering inaccuracies in the presentation of their views are, needless to say, my responsibility.

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Correspondence to Karen Brøcker.

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Brøcker, K. Justifying the evidential use of linguistic intuitions. Synthese (2020).

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  • Linguistic intuitions
  • Acceptability judgements
  • Grammaticality judgements
  • Philosophy of linguistics
  • Voice of Competence