MoL 10: Marcus Tomalin (Cambridge University)

Syntactic Structures and Recursive Devices: The Perils of Imprecision

Taking Syntactic Structures (1957; from henceforth SS) as a starting point, this presentation will reconsider the role of recursion in syntactic theory, and several aspects of this broad topic will be addressed. Initially, the use of `recursive devices' in SS will be explored, and these devices will be considered in relation to the recursive techniques that Chomsky had deployed in his pre-SS work. In order to provide a broader cultural background for this discussion, though, the development of recursive techniques within the formal sciences (esp., 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 in different contexts. In addition, Bar-Hillel's influential advocacy in the early 1950s of recursive techniques within the context of linguistic theory will be summarised since his views seem to have influenced Chomsky's thinking about this topic. In essence, the main purpose will be to show that, when SS was written, the term `recursion' was riddled with uncertainties and ambiguities, and that, while using the term, SS does nothing to resolve these problems.

In order to indicate how certain topics (such as recursion) that were incompletely and informally considered in SS have continued to provoke debate during the subsequent decades, the role of recursion within modern syntactic theory will be briefly summarised. 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 Minimalist Program, FLN is generally considered to be a computational mechanism that is recently evolved and unique to homo sapiens, this implies that recursion is one of the fundamental defining properties of natural language -- a claim that is currently being extensively debated. However, despite its alleged centrality, as noted above, recursion is an alarmingly ambiguous term, and it will be suggested that disagreements about the role and status of recursive components within contemporary linguistic theory often arise as a result of terminological vagaries and misunderstandings which date back to the 1950s (at least).

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