Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Wed Apr 25 22:00:00 UTC 2007

In a message dated 4/25/07 2:26:28 PM, dlevere at writes:
<< It is common knowledge in computer science (and should be in linguistics) 
that **tail-recursion**... is formally equivalent to iteration. See Aho et el. 
(1986: 53) for details.  

Center-embedding is another matter: this is full-blown recursion, requiring a 
stack for everything to be properly wound up. >>

Fred Karlson has effectively argued that multiple center-embedding of clauses 
has been constrained in Standard Average European, that it developed with 
writing and that it has not become more complex since.

(This raises the question of what exactly recursiveness is supposed to bring 
to language -- what possible survival value it would have, how it improves 
language?  I suppose that it might contribute gradual compactness.  Or 
disambiguation -- but in a way that is what any kind of added complexity is to language 
-- more disambiguation at the price of added complexity.)  

Last year, Timothy Gentner et al demonstrated recursive syntactic pattern 
learning in starlings.  That these songbirds are "vocal learners" was considered 
as a key determinant in the experiments -- as opposed to non-human primates 
who did not perform well in similar experiments.   

This is a particularly interesting quote from the above report:
"There might be no single property or processing capacity that marks the many 
ways in which the complexity and detail of human language differs from 
non-human communication systems... It may be more useful to consider species differ
ences as quantitative rather than qualitative distinctions in cognitive 

It is also worth noting that there are those who consider the whole recursion 
issue a red herring.  Philip Lieberman, who is professor of cognitive and 
linguistic sciences at Brown and recently authored the book "Toward an 
evolutionary biology of language" had the following to say in a yet-unpublished letter:

"Tecumseh Fitch, no doubt will be able to convince himself and Chomsky’s 
other acolytes that the Piraha language involves recursion, but that won’t salvage 
Universal Grammar There is no Universal Grammar specific to language that 
specifies the possible rules of syntax of every language that is, was, or will be 
spoken. We don’t have to debate whether recursion marks Piraha to rule out 
Universal Grammar. The ever present occurrence of genetic variation, which as 
Charles Darwin noted is the key to Natural 

Selection, makes any form of Universal Grammar problematic."

Some may come to the conclusion that, even if it makes or breaks Universal 
Grammar, recursiveness in language may in the end be a kind of a parlour trick 
-- a test of pattern generation and recognition or a vestige of Ciceronian 
verbosity, which little to do with the basic nature of language.

Steve Long

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