Consider the following extremely melodramatic story fragment (the sentences in the story, and its melodramatic character, set up context and motivation for the brain to parse an otherwise hard-to-parse sentence).
"Linda was my mother's partner, who my mother, God bless her, admired so much. Linda, along with her husband, a ruggedly handsome adventurer, would jaunt around the world, writing travel pieces. In Ecuador, as he and Linda lay in a sun-bleached hammock sweating with malaria, he sent me a letter by mail. Inside was a photo and a short note explaining their situation, and a second envelope, with the strictest instruction not to open, except upon news of their death.
They were supposed to return today, but he was alone at the Airport. Oh Linda! Through his tears, he assured me that he would read that secret letter aloud to me tonight, at my bedside. You must have already guessed that I am in love with him. He is the man that Linda, the woman my mother admired, married.
"But you took the letter, took it upstairs. You didn't let the man that Linda, the woman my mother, God bless her, admired married read it out loud to me. Why?
"You know you always stutter when you lie. I am not accusing you of anything, but if while you tell me what you took the letter that I wanted the man that Linda, the woman, my mother, God bless her, admired, married to read to me upstairs for in your own words, you start stuttering, I will never forgive you!"
The only point of this ridiculous tale is to set up the final sentence. The final sentence has 7 separate layers of center embeddings.
"I am not accusing you of anything, but only if SENTENCE I will never forgive you" is the outer context of the relevant recursion.
"while SENTENCE you start stuttering" is embedded.
"you tell me SENTENCE in your own words".
The middle sentence is "what you took the letter ... upstairs for." This is a variation on a well known embedded construction observed in a 7 or 8 year old child: "What did you take the book that I wanted to be read to out of up for?".
"that I wanted the man ... to read to me" is another level
"Linda ... married" is another level
"the woman my mother ... admired"
God bless her (that's the deepest)
I am curious about the psychological tests determining the depth of center embedding. The limit of 3 seems to be for homogenous constructions, where the repeated embedding is of the same kind in all the deepening examples.
Here is a simple sentence that violates the 3 center-embedding limit:
- If you tell me what you took the letter that I wanted you to read from upstairs for in your own words I will forgive you.
But the sentence from the melodrama is:
- I am not accusing you of anything, but if while you tell me what you took the letter that I wanted the man that the woman my mother, God bless her, admired married to read from upstairs for in your own words you start to stutter, I will never forgive you!
which is center embedded at least 7 times, so in terms of embedding depth, it is analogous to:
- The car that the bus that the man that the woman that the child that the bunny that the carrot that the top was snipped off of, was fed to, hopped at, talked to, smiled at, drove, hit.
But I don't think the preceding sentence is anywhere near as difficult to parse. Are the center-embedding limits trustworthy? Am I fooling myself by reading an incomprehensible sentence too many times? Or is it only a certain type of center embedding that is limited to 3 levels?