That’s so meta meta meta

Today, I’m going to introduce you to two of my very good friends in linguistics: “metalinguistic” and “recursive“. They’re not that closely related, but they tend to get asked if they’re sisters a lot. Why?

Well, metalinguistic knowledge is knowing about language, and the fact that you can read this shows that you must have some metalinguistic knowledge. But this blog (and the field of linguistics as a whole) is concerned with knowing about what you know about language, i.e. meta-metalinguistic knowledge. And just just talking about that, I’m adding another level. My discussion of what we know about linguistics gets us all the way to meta-meta-metalinguistic knowledge. And by talking about that… You get the picture.

The picture looks like this.

The picture is also recursive. One of my favorite examples of recursivity is PHP. Originally, the acronym stood for “Personal Home Page”, but it now stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor“. What does the PHP in that stand for? Why, for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”, of course. (Repeat ad nauseum, or at least ad getting-punched-in-the-arm.) Or, wait, maybe it’s cats looking at cats looking at cats looking at cast looking at cats…

So you can see how they’re related, right? They’re both all about making you feel dizzy and then fall down, or maybe puke if you get motion sickness.

But what you may not know about recursivity is that it’s a very important process in linguistics as well. How so, you might ask?  Well, remember in the days of yore (yesterday was totally a day of yore) when I told you all about generativity? Recursivity is a great example of one of those generative processes. You can have a recursive sentence that just goes on forever. How about when you’re describing where you learned something?

I heard it from Jen.

Well, what if Jen heard it from someone else?

I heard it from Jen who heard it from Ian.

And then you find out that Ian wasn’t the originator either.

I heard it from Jen, who heard it from Ian, who heard it from Zach, who heard it from Nick, who heard it from Clarice…

And so on and so forth.You can pretty much keep going on infinitely. You can do it with other types of phrases to.

Get the butter from the fridge by the stove behind the water buffalo next to the peat coal kiln…

Chomsky argued that recursion is the fundamental characteristic of human languge, and this has been the cause of some debate. (Pirahã  may be the most argued-about Non-Indo-European language ever.) So recursion has two main uses in linguistics. The first is as a generative process that allows speakers to form infinitely long sentences, and the other is to use language about using language about using language about using language about using language about using language about using language…


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