A. Katz amnfn at well.com
Wed Apr 25 05:23:10 UTC 2007

Of course language uses finite means to achieve non-finite ends -- or at
least, indeterminately long ends. So does DNA code and computer code,
without the intermediary of the human mind. That kind of recursion runs
throughout nature, just in the way a flower's patterns are full of the
repetition of the same subpatterns and just as snowflakes are composed of
tiny miniature patterns that repeat at different levels of magnification to
form the whole. It doesn't matter whether the item we examine is animate or
inanimate, recursion is everywhere.

Even if a language doesn't have a very complex syntax, even if there are
not any dependent clauses or embedding, the language has recursion
in its phonology and morphology. Surely the words of PirahaN are not
monolithic wholes with no subparts that recur in other words. Even if
Keren Everett is correct in her assessment that the real grammar of
PirahaN is in the prosody and not in the non-prosodic segments, then still
there must be something that recurs -- musical notes or pitch patterns.

After all, even if you listen to songbirds, a song is composed of
recurring musical phrases whose arrangement is the specific content of the

It is impossible to get away from that kind of recursion, but it is not
necessarily hardwired in the human brain in a language module. It is built
into the mathematics of reality. If you want to encode information, that is
how you are going to have to do it. There is no other way.


       --Aya Katz

Dr. Aya Katz, Inverted-A, Inc, P.O. Box 267, Licking, MO
65542 USA
(417) 457-6652 (573) 247-0055

On Tue, 24 Apr 2007, Arie Verhagen wrote:

> With all due respect, also for Chomsky and his important contributions to the field (where
> would syntax be without him?) - let me address at least one of the misunderstandings in
> Jagdish Jain's response to Dan Everett and Steve Long.
> Surely the concept of 'discrete infinity' (perhaps not the term) as characteristic of human
> language has been around long before Chomsky. It is present, for example, in pre-
> Chomskyan structuralism such as Martinet's (1949) notion of "double articulation"
> ("articulation" equals discreteness), and Hockett's (1958) equivalent "duality of
> patterning" (a somewhat less felicitous phrase). These are about a finite, in fact very
> limited, set of phonemes mapping onto a basically unlimited number of signals, actually
> already a lexicon of in principle unlimited length (there being no non-arbitrary boundary
> to the number of phonemes in a word). Chomsky could have said something like:
> "Hockett is right that language provides finite means for non-finite ends, but he is wrong
> in restricting it to phonology and lexicon; in fact the same applies (again), independently,
> in syntax, taking a finite set of words into an infinite number of messages." - it would
> certainly have been a major contribution. Instead, he said something like "People have
> not appreciated that language uses finite means for non-finite ends, and it is syntax that
> is the source of this very special property." It may have driven the message home more
> forcefully than a more moderate and nuanced way of putting it, but it has also laid the
> foundation for a lot of confusion and misunderstandings since then.
> As to other things, such as different applications and notions of recursion - well, I hope
> we will have a chance to discuss these in an open-minded and respectful way, in the
> conference at the end of the week as well as on the list.
> Best,
> --Arie Verhagen
> ----------------
> Message from Jagdish Jain <jjain at sfsu.edu>
> 24 Apr 2007, 12:03
> Subject: [FUNKNET] PirahN
> > Dear Funknet members,
> >
> > A response to Dan Everett's comments on my e-mail note of April 23,
> > 2007
> >
> > I am happy to read that Dan Everett recognizes that the PirahaN
> > people are cognitively modern human beings. ("We all are, yes." -
> > Dan Everett)
> >
> > Dan Everett says that discrete infinity is "not a Chomskyan principle. Just a fact
> > about combinatory principles that has been around for ever." The phrase " discrete
> > infinity" is Chomsky's. It is true that the notion of "combinatory principles" had
> > existed in all forms of linguistics, for example, in Immediate-Constituent Analysis of
> > structural linguistics. But the idea that you can generate an infinite number of
> > linguistic expressions by using a finite number of linguistic elements was Chomsky's
> > major contribution. [...]
> ----------------------------------------
> Arie Verhagen
> Opleiding Nederlands/LUCL
> P.N. van Eyckhof 1
> 2311 BV Leiden
> tel. +31 (0)71 527-4152
> www.arieverhagen.nl
> ----------------------------------------

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