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

1 Answer 1


From the comments:

This because my wife (who is Chinese) tells me that the grammar changed in radical ways in the 19th century, as contact with the west led Chinese to modernize. Before that, she said, Chinese sentences were "short" and "hard to understand". She isn't a linguist, so I can't be sure. – Ron Maimon

I believe two events have been conflated in this description.

Chinese has historically had a very analytical typology, reinforced by its writing system that tended to obscure morphological and phonological effects. Those who studied Chinese were more interested in semantics and pragmatics at the lexical level. Therefore, there wasn't a strong native tradition of grammar in syntax as evolved in the west.

In the 19th century, western missionaries introduced the syntactic approach, and new descriptions of Chinese grammar were written. The only radical change that came as a direct consequence was academic. To this day, the Chinese themselves still approach their language lexicographically, and western curricula in advanced Chinese studies generally follow that tradition.

Although we've been talking about Chinese as if it were a single language, and in some ways it does behave like one, an important distinction needs to be made. Chinese languages are internally at least as diverse as the Romance languages. Unlike Romance speakers, who were rarely under one central authority for long, the Chinese lived in one unified state for most of their history.

In practical terms, this meant the Chinese retained Classical Chinese as a written standard until the early 20th century, even as local vernaculars evolved and diverged. Classical Chinese is a frozen form of Old Chinese, is known for being extremely terse, and is not intelligible to untrained Chinese readers. This was most likely what your wife meant by short and hard to understand sentences.

Imagine if Western Europeans continued to write exclusively in Latin while speaking French, Spanish, Italian, etc, and if asked to recite their written Latin, pronounced every word with its local equivalent.

Western contact coincided with (and contributed to) increased prestige in local written vernaculars, e.g. written Shanghainese, Cantonese, and Hokkien. Only in the early 20th century did written Mandarin replace Classical Chinese as the national standard.

On multiple-level embedding:

Back to the topic of recursion, multiple centre-embedding can be found as early as Zhuangzi (300-200 BCE). I didn't look very hard, so there are probably other, earlier sources.

  Yángzǐ         yuē,
Master Yang      say
Jì       zhī,    xíng  xián    ér       qù       zì      xián       zhī     xīn,
remember this     do  worthy  CONJ   set aside  self    worthy      this    heart
ān        wǎng     ér   bú    ài        zāi?
where     go      CONJ  not  love  particle-question

Although zhī literally meant 'this', it had a parallel usage as an adnominal modifier. Also, any adjective in Classical Chinese can be used as a causative verb. With these two points in mind, we can render the sentence as literally as possible:

'Master Yang said, Remember ⟨that {[worthy-doing]-[[self-making-worthy]-setting-aside]} heart go where and not be loved?⟩'

In more idiomatic English,

'Master Yang said, Remember that a heart that does what is worthy, setting aside self-praise, could go anywhere and not be unloved.'

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    Another point I'd to add is that Chinese is westernized to a small degree because there are so many new concepts imported from the West in late 19th and early 20th century. At least in science and technology, it is almost a word-after-word translation into Chinese (so you can do that backwards, that means writing scientific papers is easy for Chinese who learn the English words). There was also a thought that Western language has a better grammar than Chinese, and some scholars wanted to reform Chinese according to the grammar of Western languages. This affects Chinese grammar as well.
    – user58955
    Feb 20, 2014 at 10:05
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    See this article for counter-arguments and more information: jstor.org/stable/23754002
    Aug 13, 2015 at 8:00

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