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Reconsidering Recursion in Syntactic Theory

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Theresa Biberauer.

In recent years, recursion has started to occupy an increasingly central position within the analytical formalism elaborated by the Minimalist Program (MP). For instance, in Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002), it was suggested that the Faculty of Language in the Narrow sense (FLN) `comprises only the core computational mechanisms of recursion as they appear in narrow syntax and the mappings to the interfaces’ (Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch, 2002: 1573). Since, in the biolinguistics framework adopted by the MP, FLN is generally considered to be a computational mechanism that is recently evolved and unique to homo sapiens, this suggests that recursion is one of the most fundamental defining properties of natural language. However, despite this centrality, the term `recursion’ is alarmingly ambiguous, and disagreements about its role and status within linguistic theory often arise as a result of terminological misunderstandings (e.g., see the debate developed in Pinker and Jackendoff (2005), and Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch (2005)).

Given the above, this presentation will reconsider the role of recursion in syntactic theory, and three particular aspects of this broad topic will be addressed. First, the development of recursive techniques within the formal sciences (e.g., mathematics, symbolic logic) will be briefly considered, and it will be shown that, from the late 1930s onwards, the term `recursion’ could mean several different things. Second, the incorporation of recursive devices into the formal grammars in the 1950s will be summarised, and the work of Bar-Hillel and Chomsky from this period will be analysed in some detail in order to indicate the manner in which recursion (of several different kinds) was transferred from the formal sciences into linguistics. Third, having established this historical context, the role of recursion within the MP will be discussed at length, and the main focus will fall upon Chomsky’s `recursive’ definition of `syntactic objects’ (Chomsky 1995: 243). According to this definition, there are two types of syntactic objects:

1. lexical items 2. K = {gamma {alpha,beta}}, where alpha, beta are syntactic objects and gamma is the label of K and (2) here constitutes the `recursive step’ (Chomsky 1995: 243).

The central task will be to determine which particular kind of recursion is manifest in this sort of definition.

In conclusion, it will be argued that, if the role of recursion as part of FLN is to be clarified, then it would be preferable to eliminate the term `recursion’ from all discussions of FLN , replacing it with less ambiguous (and more accurate) terminology.

This talk is part of the SyntaxLab series.

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