(“Recently”: during the Classical period in Europe)

This isn’t a meta-post; I’m linking to a ling.se answer because it’s the only place I know of where this idea is expressed: Why did early Indo-European languages seem to be morphologically complex?

The author, despite being clearly outside of the academic mainstream (and having a somewhat confrontational tone), appears to have thoughtfully and intelligently argued his point; i.e., he is not a crank.

I’m curious to what extent this idea is plausible scientifically, what evidence there is for or against, and to what extent it is current among “serious” theoreticians.

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    Since I predict this will attract downvotes and close-votes—even if the linked answer is wrong (and I do believe it is), it's wrong in demonstrable and verifiable ways. On the one hand, falsifying falsifiable theories is an important part of science! And on the other hand, even apart from that, I'd be interested in seeing more data on how different languages use recursion (I'm sure such evidence exists, but syntax isn't my strong suit, so I can't provide any off the top of my head). So I think this question is absolutely suitable and on-topic. – Draconis Nov 28 '19 at 1:45
  • @Draconis, thanks for the vote of confidence in my question. I suspect it’s wrong too, but for sociological reasons, not scientifically-intrinsic ones: I don’t know enough about linguistics to judge Ron’s ideas on their merits, but I find it unlikely, in general, for people who claim to know something a large field of science doesn’t to be correct in their claims. However, such prejudice is of course a bit unfair, so I posted this question to see if more knowledgeable people could weigh in. – Brennan Vincent Nov 28 '19 at 1:51
  • "Plausible, scientifically" is a really low bar. In this instance, the discussion may need to be conducted in a vacuum, because we don't have an account of "pre-modern" structures that seem to involve recursion. I.e. what is the general program for saying "No, that's not recursion"? – user6726 Nov 28 '19 at 2:04
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    @user6726 Surely there's good evidence of recursion in Akkadian, Sanskrit, Hittite, Egyptian, etc? (At least, using that poster's definition of recursion, which seems to be "embedded relative clauses".) – Draconis Nov 28 '19 at 2:55
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    This is obviously a crank theory, without validation, like Proto-Indo-Uralic. I'm surprised that that linked answer is still here. – jlawler Nov 28 '19 at 3:39

From what I read, there is no linguistic demonstration given by the author. To reconstruct the history of a language, you have two solutions: having historical writing traces or making a comparative-historical linguistics study.

Both are possible in Indo-european languages. All indoeuropeanists agree that the proto Indo-european language had a relative pronoun (even many). Therefore, it is also obvious that this language used dependent clauses, in other words recursive embedding.

Reference: Approaches to Proto-Indo-European relative clauses DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198713821.003.0003

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If with "recently" he really means the time of Aristotle, or even that of Cicero, then yes, he is a crank. The very first sentence in both the Iliad and Odyssey contains an embedded relative clause. To say nothing of Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian ...


μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,


ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ

πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:

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  • It would be persuasive if you could prove in that example (e.g. Hom. Il. 1.1) that there is a Sentence contained in a Sentence, recalling the definition of "recursion". – user6726 Nov 29 '19 at 16:06
  • @user6726: examples added. – fdb Nov 29 '19 at 18:43
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    Not only that, but the relative clause in the Odyssey example itself contains a subordinate temporal clause (preempting possible objections like "a single level of embedding isn't recursion"). – TKR Nov 29 '19 at 23:25

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