recursion, definitions of

Simon Kirby simon at LING.ED.AC.UK
Fri Dec 8 00:45:29 UTC 2006

You might be interested in the recent thesis by Anna Parker at the  
University of Edinburgh. Her chapter 5 discusses problems with the  
definition of recursion, and it's use in arguments about language  
evolution (a variant of this is likely to appear elsewhere soon as  
well). Her thesis is available here:


Simon Kirby
University of Edinburgh

On 7 Dec 2006, at 18:00, David Gil wrote:

> 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 English.
> (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 examples.
> 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  
> "protolanguage".
> Thanks,
> David
> -- 
> 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
> Webpage:

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list