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Reviewed by:
  • Recursion across domains ed. by Luiz Amaral et al.
  • Daniel L. Everett and Edward Gibson
Recursion across domains. Ed. by Luiz Amaral, Marcus Maia, Andrew Nevins, and Tom Roeper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. 404. ISBN 9781108418065. $125 (Hb).1

1. Introduction

The purpose of this review article is to evaluate the research reported in Recursion across domains (henceforth RAD) in the context of wider issues that impinge upon it, especially the nature of grammar and its functions in human languages. RAD resulted from a conference organized by the editors and authors on the topic of recursion in cognition and language at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in August 2013. RAD assumes one particular approach to recursion in language, in which recursion is purported to be a genetically supplied feature of the syntax of human languages (Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch 2002; henceforth HC&F).

The book consists of a foreword and an introductory chapter, followed by eighteen chapters organized in four sections. Four of the chapters across the sections discuss fieldwork or experiments investigating the Pirahã language, ten of the chapters discuss particular constructions involving embedding of various kinds in South American languages, and the remaining four chapters discuss the acquisition of recursive structures in other languages.

In what follows, we first review three perspectives on the nature and locus of recursion: the syntactic one that the authors of RAD assume (due to HC&F), and two precursors, which are not specifically syntactic: Peirce’s (1865) semantic proposal, and a special case of Simon’s (1962) proposal that hierarchy is the most economic way to organize information. Next, we examine the basic findings of the non-Pirahã chapters of RAD taken as a group, looking at the empirical lessons they contribute within the larger theoretical context. Section 4—the bulk of our review—discusses the four chapters about Pirahã. We focus on Pirahã because this is the language of most theoretical interest: it is unique among the languages that are investigated here in that it has been claimed to lack syntactic recursion.

2. Different conceptions of recursion

RAD addresses theoretical and empirical aspects of recursion for the understanding of human languages. The book assumes Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch’s (2002) approach to recursion in language, where recursion is assumed to be a genetically supplied feature of the syntax of human languages. This view contrasts with two prominent precursors in linguistics and psychology, neither of which assumes that recursion is specific to the syntax of human language. [End Page 777]

In 1865, borrowing a term from the thirteenth-century Modistae, Charles Peirce reintroduced the phrase ‘universal grammar’ into linguistics and semiotics, arguing that the grammar of meaning required recursion for reasons of logic (Peirce 1982 [1865]). Peirce considered grammar to be a device for supporting the accurate interpretation of signs (icons, indexes, and symbols, as manifested in words, propositions, phrases, phonemes, photographs, semaphores, etc.). In Peirce’s version of universal grammar, recursion was a logical requirement on interpretation, not on grammatical structures. For example, a sign like bachelor is interpreted via other signs (e.g. unmarried and man), and this interpretative procedure produces a chain of interpretation of one sign in terms of another, of arbitrary depth. There can be no language without recursion in Peircean semiotics. But recursion in this Peircean sense is not the syntactic phenomenon intended by HC&F. Peirce does not predict that all languages will manifest evidence of syntactic recursion (e.g. coordination, morphosyntactic embedding, factive predicates, etc.; see Everett 2012 for a more complete list). For Peirce, neither nature nor nurture is the source of interpretative recursion. Peirce’s recursion is the sole consequence of logical constraint on semiotic interpretation (see also Everett 2019).

In a second influential work on recursion, Simon (1962) argued that hierarchy emerges from a constraint of efficiency of information processing across all domains, because hierarchical structures are inherently more efficient and stable than other ways of organizing a complex system. Hierarchy is found in atomic structure, in the organization of societies, in the way that we process information, in the organization of galaxies, in management, and...


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