The modern Chinese linguistic recursion system is essentially the same as English. If you have a highly embedded sentence, you can translate it word for word, the embedding is very much the same. In my youth, I believed this was just another datum in favor of Universal Grammar theory, but this is not true.

Everett recently demonstrated that pre-literate languages can lack embedding, it has long been known that Warlpiri does not have recursive structures like multiple embedding at all, and Fred Karlsson in "Constraints on multiple center-embedding of clauses" argues persuasively that the modern European center-recursion system was standardized by Cicero in Roman times, and the rules for recursion spread through the influence of Cicero's writing. So that no languages at all were recursive to begin with.

It seems doubtful to me that this could have reached China until at least the late middle ages, so Chinese recursion is a particularly stringent test of the evolution of recursion in isolation from Cicero, in a culutre literate in ancient times. It is possible that Chinese recursion evolved independently.

  1. What is the approximate date of the earliest Chinese 2 or more level center-embedded production? (2-level center embedding is a stringent test of Cicero-speak)
  2. Is it before or after the date of the first translations of western recursive prose to Chinese?
  3. What is the general pattern of clause embedding in ancient chinese? Does it show multiple embedding of clauses? When?

Although it seems highly unlikely to me, if you have evidence that Chinese recursed first, and Cicero read Chinese, that would be interesting. Bonus points for Sanskrit, although I would guess no mutli-level embedding in ancient Sanskrit (based on ancient Hebrew) and considering the different expertise required, it should probably be a separate question.

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    Regarding Sanskrit: a couple different authorities have said that in Rigvedic Sanksrit, center-embedding is "impossible": 'The language of the Rigveda does not have center-embedding....In the system of Rigvedic relativization such embedding "is impossible'. Mar 8, 2012 at 15:00
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    "The language of the Rigveda has no rule of 'WH-movement'...A noteworthy feature of this system of relativization is that center-embedding, or the insertion of the relative clause into the main clause so that it is 'framed' by elements of the latter, is impossible." But then by the later Vedic times, center-embedding in Sanskrit did develop. Mar 8, 2012 at 15:05
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    @RonMaimon, Could you please tell me what you've read? Thanks!
    – Alex B.
    Mar 9, 2012 at 16:31
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    @RonMaimon, I see. I believe in reading and thinking. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. This is science. Have a nice day!
    – Alex B.
    Mar 9, 2012 at 16:42
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    @Alex B. : Every time there is a new vehicle, you have to reinvent the wheel. The wheel had to be reinvented for the cart (cross-beam), for the bicycle (spokes,inflatable tires), for the automobile (movable axis), essentially for every new vehicle. "Reinventing the wheel" is one of the central activity of science, along with inventing new wheels. If you refuse to reinvent the wheel, you aren't doing science, you are doing Aristotelianism, which is the opposite of science. I am having a very nice day, by the way.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 9, 2012 at 16:57


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