Creativity: it’s all in the syntax

Person 1: Tomorrow we are going to my mom’s sister’s dad’s granddaughter’s house for her birthday party.

Person 2: Oh your cousin’s house.

Person 1: Isn’t that what I said?

Tracing through your entire family tree is completely unnecessary in the above situation, but nonetheless, the sentence is grammatically sound. This is one of the properties of language that makes it so interesting to examine. Recursion– with regards to linguistics– is what allows a speaker to continuously add phrases, extending the length and complexity of a sentence.

Constituents are the parts of a sentence that form a single unit, such as noun phrases and verb phrases. Recursion is possible because these constituents are organized hierarchically in a sentence. Here is a visual demonstrating hierarchical structure:

sentence hierarchy

You can see that even though we speak in a linear way (one word right after another) that the phrases are embedded in each other.

The children’s poem “The House that Jack Built” shows recursion in full action.

If too much recursion occurs, the sentence may be hard for the listener to understand. I sure couldn’t remember the beginning phrase of the poem by the time I got to the end!

Languages’ recursive property is only the beginning of the creativity language provides us with. The syntax of every human language consists of a finite set of rules and a finite lexicon. When these two are put together, a speaker can generate an UNLIMITED number of different sentences. Every sentence you will say or hear today is most likely a sentence that you have never said or heard before. Now that is something to sit on. Wow!


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    • egale on September 26, 2013 at 11:43 am

    It is also interesting that repetition is so often the tool through which we learn language.

    • Angela Polloni on September 26, 2013 at 12:11 am

    Glad you liked it! Once you start thinking about language in this way you realize just how complex a system it is.

    • Tiffany on September 25, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Wow, what an interesting post! I’ve never thought about how unlimited language could be!

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