Daniel L. Everett dlevere at ilstu.edu
Wed Apr 25 14:16:54 UTC 2007

This is roughly correct, Mike. However, as the papers at the first  
international conference on Recursion in Human Language, to begin  
here at ISU on Friday April 27 show, there are various potential  
understandings and applications of recursion. Some forms of recursion  
are equivalent formally to nothing more than iteration. Others  
require embedding. Some definitions make it the basis for  
hierarchical structures (so hierarchy and recursion are the same in  
these views), others equate it more with embedding. A lot of  
clarification is needed.

If you cannot make the conference on recursion, we hope to publish a  
book afterwards. But people should try to be there. Funny that in  
spite of how important it has become in recent months, there are so  
few attempts to reach consensus on what it is. Many people think it  
is self-evident. Not so.


On Apr 25, 2007, at 9:11 AM, Mike_Cahill at sil.org wrote:

> 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
> song.
> 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.
> Best,
>        --Aya Katz

Daniel L. Everett, Professor of Linguistics, Anthropology, and  
Biological Sciences

Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
Campus Box 4300
Illinois State University
Normal, Illinois 61790-4300
OFFICE: 309-438-3604
FAX: 309-438-8038

Dept: http://www.llc.ilstu.edu/default.asp
Recursion: http://www.llc.ilstu.edu/rechul/
Personal: http://www.llc.ilstu.edu/dlevere/

Honorary Professor of Linguistics
University of Manchester
Manchester, UK
β€œThe notion that the essence of what it means to be human is most  
clearly revealed in those features of human culture that are  
universal rather than in those that are distinctive to this people or  
that is a prejudice that we are not obliged to share... It may be in  
the cultural particularities of people β€” in their oddities β€” that  
some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be  
generically human are to be found.” Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

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