Recursion in Language: A Layered-Derivation Approach

Jan-Wouter Zwart


This paper argues that recursion in language is to be understood not in terms of embedding, but in terms of derivational layering. A construction is recursive if part of its input is the output of a separate derivational layer. Complex clauses may be derived recursively in this sense, but also iteratively, suggesting that standard arguments for or against recursion in language are misdirected. More generally, we cannot tell that a grammar is recursive by simply looking at its output; we have to know about the generative procedure. Using the new definition of recursion in terms of derivational layering, we once again inspect the recorded data of Pirahã, arguing that there is reason to believe that the grammar of Pirahã is recursive after all.


cyclicity; derivation; layered derivation; Pirahã; recursion

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