The Acquisition of Recursion: How Formalism Articulates the Child’s Path


  • Tom W. Roeper UMass


direct recursion, generalized transformation, indirect recursion, interfaces, phases, strong minimalist thesis


We distinguish three kinds of recursion: Direct Recursion (which delivers a ‘conjunction’ reading), Indirect Recursion, and Generalized Transformations. The essential argument is that Direct Recursion captures the first stage of each recursive structure. Acquisition evidence will then be provided from both naturalistic data and experimentation that adjectives, possessives, verbal compounds, and sentence complements all point to con-junction as the first stage. Then it will be argued that Indirect Recursion captures the Strong Minimalist Thesis, which allows periodic Transfer and interpretation. Why is recursion delayed and not immediate? It is argued that an interpretation of Generalized Transformations in the spirit of Tree Adjoining Grammar offers a route to explanation. A labeling algorithm combines with Generalized Transformations to provide different labels for recursive structures projection. Recursion is then achieved by substitution of a recursive node for a simple node. One simple case is to substitute a Maximal Projection for a simple non-branching lexical node. A more complex case — essential to acquisition — is to substitute a category for a lexical string. Consequently, a computational ‘psychological reality’ can be attributed to explain why recursion requires an extra step for the addition of each recursive construction on the acquisition path.

Author Biography

Tom W. Roeper, UMass

Professor of Linguistics