Recursion

Unless you really stop and think about language—why and how we say what we say—it's easy to believe that language just happens. The truth is, though, that language follows very specific rules. Some rules you learn, while others you just pick up along the way. One rule that many take for granted because they use it, but don't always understand it, is recursion

Recursion Recursion

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Table of contents

    Recursion Explanation

    Think of recursion like Russian nesting dolls—one doll fits inside another of a similar shape, which fits inside another, and the process repeats itself over and over again.

    Recursion Recursion definition Russian nesting dolls StudySmarterFig. 1 - The concept of recursion is like a Russian nesting doll—something nested inside of something else with the same shape.

    Recursion is a mathematical phenomenon applied to linguistics, where a grammatical structure is repeated within itself again and again.

    More simply, linguistic recursion is the ability to place a grammatical element inside an element of the same kind.

    Recursion Properties

    There are a few important properties of recursion that help set it apart from other linguistic phenomena.

    The first key property of recursion is that the nested words or structure must be of the same kind. Sentences can be nested within other sentences, noun phrases within other noun phrases, and so on.

    Natalie’s sister’s dogs.

    The sentence contains the noun dogs, and that noun occurs in the noun phrase sister’s dogs, which resides in another noun phrase, Natalie’s sister’s dogs.

    This example could continue as long as the structure stays the same. You wouldn’t add a verb phrase within this noun phrase: “Natalie’s sister’s dogs she can’t find them” doesn’t make sense. However, you could add another possessive to the string of possessives. The sentence could continue “Natalie’s sister’s dogs’ leashes…” with more room for further recursion or the conclusion to the sentence.

    The second key recursion property is that the elements continue to repeat, increasing depth of meaning, until you stop. In other words, the addition of each grammatical element must add a new deeper level of meaning. If there is not a new layer of meaning added, then you’re repeating yourself—this is a different linguistic phenomenon known as iteration.

    These two principles of recursion—that structures must be of the same kind and increase depth of meaning—are what led some linguists to believe that recursion is what separates human language from that of other animals.

    Recursion and Chomsky

    Noam Chomsky often called the father of modern linguistics, introduced the theory of Universal Grammar, which proposes that the human brain contains a set of innate skills necessary for the creation of language. Chomsky and others came to the conclusion that recursion is one of those innate skills and that it specifically is what gives human language the ability to create endless meaning.

    Chomsky asserted that the essence of language is the ability to create an infinite number of sentences and meaningful utterances. There is no ceiling to cap the number of things we can say, even within a single sentence, thanks to recursion. In their article in Science (2002), Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch1 posit:

    There is no longest sentence (any candidate sentence can be trumped by, for example, embedding it in “Mary thinks that . . .”), and there is no nonarbitrary upper bound to sentence length. (P. 1571)

    Chomsky called this concept discrete infinity and believed that it’s true of all human language (and only human language). Recursion is the necessary tool for this interpretation of language to be true.

    Opposition to Chomsky

    Not all linguists agree on the concept of Universal Grammar, or Chomsky’s conclusion about recursion as the key to human language. Daniel Everett, a missionary linguist, dwelt with an indigenous people group in the Amazon called the Pirahã for many years. Everett learned the native language and discovered that the language of Pirahã showed no signs of recursion.

    This discovery stands in apparent opposition to Chomsky’s understanding of recursion as the only uniquely human feature of language. Today, linguists continue to debate Chomsky’s hypothesis and the implications of Everett's findings.

    Recursion and Syntax

    Recursion is also called syntactic recursion because the recursive structures can be words, phrases, or sentences. These are all components of syntax.

    Syntax is the branch of linguistics that deals with the arrangement of words and phrases to create sentences.

    Because recursion appears at the syntactic level, it cannot apply to smaller elements of language, such as morphemes (the building blocks of words). The most common recursive structures involve noun phrases.

    Recursion in Language Examples

    Recursion may take many forms in language because, again, as long as the repeated element is the same as the element in which it is embedded and it deepens the meaning of the phrase or sentence, it is recursion.

    Recursion can be a string of adjectives:

    The young, eager, confident teacher stood in front of the class, ready to dive in.

    Recursion Recursion in language examples Young teacher StudySmarterFig. 2 - The description of the teacher could continue until the speaker runs out of things to describe them.

    In theory, this list of adjectives describing the teacher could go on and on, but syntactic convention usually caps these strings at two or three.

    Many literary geniuses use recursion as a hallmark of their writing style. Faulkner, Woolf, and Fitzgerald are just a few examples of authors that frequently used recursion.

    Mrs. Dalloway2 (1925) by Virginia Woolf shares an example of a series of recursive structures contained in one sentence:

    Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now.

    There are six major syntactic movements in this single sentence, and, in theory, it could continue like this until Woolf ran out of words. Inside each movement is at least one example of recursion, where the phrase deepens in meaning.

    The first unit of the sentence alone contains four recursive movements:

    1. swooping, swerving, flinging themselves
    2. in and out,
    3. round and round,
    4. yet always with perfect control, as if elastics held them

    This single sentence carries on like this, describing the scene observed by the character in great detail.

    Notice how each additional recursive element—either the larger movements or the additional information contained within one of the larger units—expound on the meaning of the object the character is observing.

    Recursion - Key takeaways

    • Recursion is a mathematical phenomenon applied to linguistics, where a grammatical structure is repeated within itself again and again.
    • The first key property of recursion is that the nested words or structure must be of the same kind.
    • The second key recursion property is that the elements continue to repeat, increasing depth of meaning, until you stop.
    • Noam Chomsky proposes that recursion is an innate feature of human language that separates it from the communication of animals.
    • Recursion happens at the syntactic level of language.

    1. Noam Chomsky, Marc D. Hauser, and W. Tecumseh Fitch. 'The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?' Science (2002).

    2. Virginia Woolf. 'Mrs. Dalloway'. 1925.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Recursion

    What is recursion and example?

    Recursion is a mathematical phenomenon applied to linguistics, where a grammatical structure is repeated within itself again and again. An example of recursion is a string of adjectives describing something. 

    Why is recursion important to language?

    Recursion is important to language because it represents the ability of language to reproduce in an infinite amount of ways. 

    What is recursion in Chomskian linguistics?

    Recursion in Chomskian linguistics is the feature of Universal Language that separates it from the communication of animals. 

    Why is language recursive?

    Language is recursive so that speakers may express ideas without a limit to how much can be added to a thought or sentence. 

    What does recursion mean in linguistics?

    Recursion is the repeated use of a syntactic element of language.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is not a key property of recursion?

    Is the following an example of recursion?Hillary sat at the table, in the garage, attached to the house, in the neighborhood, around the corner from the store.

    Is the following an example of recursion?The landscape was, in short, nothing to write home about. 

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