recursion, definitions of

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Thu Dec 7 18:00:11 UTC 2006

Dear colleagues,

I am seeking bibliographical references to definitions of recursion in 
grammar, primarily in syntax, but also in discourse and morphology.

My motivation stems from what seems to be a lack of clarity (or is it 
just me?) with regard to what kinds of constructions qualify for 
characterization as recursive.  The prototypical example of recursion 
seems to be that in (1) below, but what about the subsequent examples: 
do they also instantiate recursion?

(1) embedded sentential complements (eg. "John said that Bill thinks 
that Mary claimed that ...")

(2) stacked modifiers of various kinds (eg. "big fat ugly purple ... 
thing", "very very very very ... tall")

(3) hierarchic coordination, either with or without an overt coordinator 
(eg. "John and [either Bill or [John and ... ] ] ")

(4) flat coordination, either with or without an overt coordinator (eg. 
"John, Bill, Mary ... and Sue")

(5) "Papuan-style" clause chaining constructions, of the form 
S[non-finite] S[non-finite] S[non-finite] .... S[finite]

(6) the simple string of sentences occurring in any narrative text in 

(7) multiple iteration (eg. "ran and ran and ran and ...")

(8) multiple reduplication (in those rare cases where there is no limit 
to the number of times a word-internal element may be repeated).

What I'd like to find out is whether examples such as the above satisfy 
various definitions of recursion that, hopefully, you might be able to 
point me to. 
I'd also be interested in your opinions with regard to whether a 
definition of recursion in grammar *should* encompass each of the above 

As I understand it, the "standard" definition, involving a "rewrite 
rule" with an identical symbol on either side of the arrow, is 
sufficiently broad as to encompass all of the above examples.  Is that 
right?  And if so, is that desirable?

My interest in recursion is both typological, wishing to be able to 
evaluate claims to the effect that languages may vary with respect to 
their tolerance of recursion, and also evolutionary, wishing to 
formulate hypotheses regarding the development of recursion in 



David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321 
Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at

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