Recursion & Reliability in Human Language

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are a student of linguistics, you might be interested in how language develops and some of the theories behind how it can work. This lesson discusses recursion and reliability as linguistic concepts.

Thinking About Language

Have you ever thought about why and how you use language to communicate? If so, then you know that language is both a useful medium and one that entails many different complexities.

As you develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how language works and why it is important, you might become more interested in how we structure sentences and what this ultimately says about the drive to communicate via language.

One important phenomenon within linguistics is recursion, or the linguistic extension of a mathematical phenomenon in which a structure is repeated again and again, dynamically, within itself. Understanding recursion has also contributed to the understanding of reliability within language; in other words, how much can we trust language as a means for communication?

Understanding Recursion

To better understand recursion and how it is applied within linguistics, it is helpful to recall the work of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky explains linguistic recursion as something that occurs when a grammatical sentence, which includes a noun or noun phrase and a verb, might or might not contain another sentence. In Chomsky's understanding, there is no upper bound, or outer limit, on how many sentences can be maintained within each other.

Development of Recursion

In this understanding, recursion in language develops as we build increasingly long and complex sentences. For instance, look at the sentence, 'The girl thinks the book is long.' This is one sentence from a semantic level, but it contains a shorter sentence within it, 'the book is long.' This shorter sentence is indeed grammatical.

Chomsky has understood recursion in language to be indicative of the tremendous creativity of language. Since the number of embedded sentences is unbounded, there are multiple possibilities for human expression as occurring within recursion.

In other words, a sentence like this could go on forever:

'The teacher says the mother thinks her husband will argue his boss told him the girl will believe the book is hard...'

Further, recursion is foremost a mathematical concept, but its presence in language has contributed to the possibility of understanding linguistics via mathematical study.

Rejection of Recursion

However, some linguists have used examples to reject the possibility of recursion as a universal phenomenon in human language.

Specifically, Daniel Everett has used the Piraha language of a group indigenous to Brazil to show that recursion is not a universal category within human language. In Piraha, there are limitations on how clauses can be structured. Therefore, there cannot be nested sentences that contain recursive sentences, as there can be in other documented languages. Everett's argument that there is no recursion within Piraha is a controversial claim, as any argument refuting recursion would go far to undermine Chomsky's major theory of universality of grammar.

Understanding Reliability

As we look at recursion and other phenomena used in descriptive linguistics, we can start to think about how reliable language is as a means of communication.

In general, when we ask questions about reliability in language, we are asking whether we can count on language to do what it purports to do. This has to do with symbolization, which occurs in language when a human translates a thought into a word, phrase, or sentence.

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