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Recursion in Pragmatics

From: Language
Volume 89, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 149-162 | 10.1353/lan.2013.0005



There has been a recent spate of work on recursion as a central design feature of language. This short report points out that there is little evidence that unlimited recursion, understood as center-embedding, is typical of natural language syntax. Nevertheless, embedded pragmatic construals seem available in every language. Further, much deeper center-embedding can be found in dialogue or conversation structure than can be found in syntax. Existing accounts for the 'performance' limitations on center-embedding are thus thrown into doubt. Dialogue materials suggest that center-embedding is perhaps a core part of the human interaction system, and is for some reason much more highly restricted in syntax than in other aspects of cognition.