Г-н Фаршеклоакин (spamsink) wrote in linguaphiles,
Г-н Фаршеклоакин

Pirahã, recursion and Chomsky

[Please let me know if there is a better forum for this.]

Pirahã is not news, and this RSS link seems to refer to a New Yorker article that is two months old.

Nevertheless, while I was reading with renewed interest the Everett's interview in The Edge and the article with "recursion this, recursion that" in almost every paragraph, I couldn't keep myself from thinking that recursion is just a syntactic sugar, a matter of convenience, as any recursive sentence can be converted to an equivalent sequence of non-recursive sentences as far as the persistence of reference (for lack of a better term if it exists) is maintained.

After all, who's to say that the persistence of reference has to be expressed syntactically - be it using recursive embedding, definite articles, or pronouns? As far as there is an understanding that in "Dog sit door. Dog wag tail." the red dog and the green dog refer to the same dog that is sitting by the door wagging its tail, the language is as powerful as any other, albeit not as efficient.

At first I thought that I'm missing something but when a colleague previously unfamiliar with Pirahã to whom I was describing the language and the difficulty the Chomskian approach has with it asked the exact same question about extra-syntactical references without my prompting, I decided to post my musings here.

A quote from the article:

The authors compared animal and human communication, eliminating the aspects of vocalization that are shared by both, and concluded that one operation alone distinguished human speech: recursion.

If so, I'd like to know what animal communication system is capable of persistence of reference (and the proper term for it, for that matter).
Tags: linguistics

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