The modern Chinese linguistic recursion system is essentially the same as the English one. 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 that 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 that 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 culture 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 multi-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'. Commented 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. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 15:05
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    @Alex B.: I have been following the recursion debate, I know what these people are saying. Their position is indefensible. Sentences that do not have embedding are flat, they do not have a parse tree description that is useful. List-making is a primitive form of recursion (which is remarkably also missing in Piraha), but only if you have unbounded lists. This is Chomsky's "merge" retrenchment. To say that a language has recursion when it admits a 3 word sentence is mentally deranged, and uses the word "recursion" in a way incompatible with its use in generative grammar for 50 years.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 16:28
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    @RonMaimon, Could you please tell me what you've read? Thanks!
    – Alex B.
    Commented 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.
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 16:42


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