Michael Cahill Mike_Cahill at sil.org
Wed Apr 25 14:11:25 UTC 2007

In response to Aya Katz below,

Isn't this conflating recursion and hierarchy? Of course an object or event
or polymorphemic word can be broken down into subparts, and these subparts
into other subparts. Hierarchy is indeed built into nature: a molecule is
composed of atoms, atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons,
and these can be broken down as well. The difference is that each atom of a
molecule is on the same level as other atoms - we don't have atoms within
atoms. Recursion is embedding - clause within clause, etc. Repetition is
not recursion.

Just so we're clear on what we're discussing.

Mike Cahill

Dr. Michael Cahill
International Linguistics Coordinator, SIL International
7500 W. Camp Wisdom Rd.
Dallas, TX 75236

email: mike_cahill at sil.org
phone: 972-708-7328
fax: 972-708-7380
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

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