The language faculty that wasn't: a usage-based account of natural language recursion.
ABSTRACT: In the generative tradition, the language faculty has been shrinking-perhaps to include only the mechanism of recursion. This paper argues that even this view of the language faculty is too expansive. We first argue that a language faculty is difficult to reconcile with evolutionary considerations. We then focus on recursion as a detailed case study, arguing that our ability to process recursive structure does not rely on recursion as a property of the grammar, but instead emerges gradually by piggybacking on domain-general sequence learning abilities. Evidence from genetics, comparative work on non-human primates, and cognitive neuroscience suggests that humans have evolved complex sequence learning skills, which were subsequently pressed into service to accommodate language. Constraints on sequence learning therefore have played an important role in shaping the cultural evolution of linguistic structure, including our limited abilities for processing recursive structure. Finally, we re-evaluate some of the key considerations that have often been taken to require the postulation of a language faculty.
Project description:Although recursion has been hypothesized to be a necessary capacity for the evolution of language, the multiplicity of definitions being used has undermined the broader interpretation of empirical results. I propose that only a definition focused on representational abilities allows the prediction of specific behavioural traits that enable us to distinguish recursion from non-recursive iteration and from hierarchical embedding: only subjects able to represent recursion, i.e. to represent different hierarchical dependencies (related by parenthood) with the same set of rules, are able to generalize and produce new levels of embedding beyond those specified a priori (in the algorithm or in the input). The ability to use such representations may be advantageous in several domains: action sequencing, problem-solving, spatial navigation, social navigation and for the emergence of conventionalized communication systems. The ability to represent contiguous hierarchical levels with the same rules may lead subjects to expect unknown levels and constituents to behave similarly, and this prior knowledge may bias learning positively. Finally, a new paradigm to test for recursion is presented. Preliminary results suggest that the ability to represent recursion in the spatial domain recruits both visual and verbal resources. Implications regarding language evolution are discussed.
Project description:The human ability to process hierarchical structures has been a longstanding research topic. However, the nature of the cognitive machinery underlying this faculty remains controversial. Recursion, the ability to embed structures within structures of the same kind, has been proposed as a key component of our ability to parse and generate complex hierarchies. Here, we investigated the cognitive representation of both recursive and iterative processes in the auditory domain. The experiment used a two-alternative forced-choice paradigm: participants were exposed to three-step processes in which pure-tone sequences were built either through recursive or iterative processes, and had to choose the correct completion. Foils were constructed according to generative processes that did not match the previous steps. Both musicians and non-musicians were able to represent recursion in the auditory domain, although musicians performed better. We also observed that general 'musical' aptitudes played a role in both recursion and iteration, although the influence of musical training was somehow independent from melodic memory. Moreover, unlike iteration, recursion in audition was well correlated with its non-auditory (recursive) analogues in the visual and action sequencing domains. These results suggest that the cognitive machinery involved in establishing recursive representations is domain-general, even though this machinery requires access to information resulting from domain-specific processes.
Project description:Learning is typically understood as a process in which the behavior of an organism is progressively shaped until it closely approximates a target form. It is easy to comprehend how a motor skill or a vocabulary can be progressively learned-in each case, one can conceptualize a series of intermediate steps which lead to the formation of a proficient behavior. With grammar, it is more difficult to think in these terms. For example, center embedding recursive structures seem to involve a complex interplay between multiple symbolic rules which have to be in place simultaneously for the system to work at all, so it is not obvious how the mechanism could gradually come into being. Here, we offer empirical evidence from a new artificial language (or "artificial grammar") learning paradigm, Locus Prediction, that, despite the conceptual conundrum, recursion acquisition occurs gradually, at least for a simple formal language. In particular, we focus on a variant of the simplest recursive language, a (n) b (n) , and find evidence that (i) participants trained on two levels of structure (essentially ab and aabb) generalize to the next higher level (aaabbb) more readily than participants trained on one level of structure (ab) combined with a filler sentence; nevertheless, they do not generalize immediately; (ii) participants trained up to three levels (ab, aabb, aaabbb) generalize more readily to four levels than participants trained on two levels generalize to three; (iii) when we present the levels in succession, starting with the lower levels and including more and more of the higher levels, participants show evidence of transitioning between the levels gradually, exhibiting intermediate patterns of behavior on which they were not trained; (iv) the intermediate patterns of behavior are associated with perturbations of an attractor in the sense of dynamical systems theory. We argue that all of these behaviors indicate a theory of mental representation in which recursive systems lie on a continuum of grammar systems which are organized so that grammars that produce similar behaviors are near one another, and that people learning a recursive system are navigating progressively through the space of these grammars.
Project description:Background:Understanding rhino movement behavior, especially their recursive movements, holds significant promise for enhancing rhino conservation efforts, and protecting their habitats and the biodiversity they support. Here we investigate the daily, biweekly, and seasonal recursion behavior of rhinos, to aid conservation applications and increase our foundational knowledge about these important ecosystem engineers. Methods:Using relocation data from 59 rhinos across northern Namibia and 8 years of sampling efforts, we investigated patterns in 24-h displacement at dawn, dusk, midday, and midnight to examine movement behaviors at an intermediate scale and across daily behavioral modes of foraging and resting. To understand recursion patterns across animals' short and long-term ranges, we built T-LoCoH time use grids to estimate recursive movement by each individual. Comparing these grids to contemporaneous MODIS imagery, we investigated productivity's influence on short-term space use and recursion. Finally, we investigated patterns of recursion within a year's home range, measuring the time to return to the most intensively used patches. Results:Twenty four-hour displacements at dawn were frequently smaller than 24-h displacements at dusk or at midday and midnight resting periods. Recursion analyses demonstrated that short-term recursion was most common in areas of median rather than maximum NDVI values. Investigated across a full year, recursion analysis showed rhinos most frequently returned to areas within 8-21 days, though visits were also seen separated by months likely suggesting seasonality in range use. Conclusions:Our results indicate that rhinos may frequently stay within the same area of their home ranges for days at a time, and possibly return to the same general area days in a row especially during morning foraging bouts. Recursion across larger time scales is also evident, and likely a contributing mechanism for maintaining open landscapes and browsing lawns of the savanna.
Project description:The ability to understand and generate hierarchical structures is a crucial component of human cognition, available in language, music, mathematics and problem solving. Recursion is a particularly useful mechanism for generating complex hierarchies by means of self-embedding rules. In the visual domain, fractals are recursive structures in which simple transformation rules generate hierarchies of infinite depth. Research on how children acquire these rules can provide valuable insight into the cognitive requirements and learning constraints of recursion. Here, we used fractals to investigate the acquisition of recursion in the visual domain, and probed for correlations with grammar comprehension and general intelligence. We compared second (n=26) and fourth graders (n=26) in their ability to represent two types of rules for generating hierarchical structures: Recursive rules, on the one hand, which generate new hierarchical levels; and iterative rules, on the other hand, which merely insert items within hierarchies without generating new levels. We found that the majority of fourth graders, but not second graders, were able to represent both recursive and iterative rules. This difference was partially accounted by second graders' impairment in detecting hierarchical mistakes, and correlated with between-grade differences in grammar comprehension tasks. Empirically, recursion and iteration also differed in at least one crucial aspect: While the ability to learn recursive rules seemed to depend on the previous acquisition of simple iterative representations, the opposite was not true, i.e., children were able to acquire iterative rules before they acquired recursive representations. These results suggest that the acquisition of recursion in vision follows learning constraints similar to the acquisition of recursion in language, and that both domains share cognitive resources involved in hierarchical processing.
Project description:Human cognitive capacity includes recursively definable concepts, which are prevalent in domains involving lists, numbers, and languages. Cognitive science currently lacks a satisfactory explanation for the systematic nature of such capacities (i.e., why the capacity for some recursive cognitive abilities-e.g., finding the smallest number in a list-implies the capacity for certain others-finding the largest number, given knowledge of number order). The category-theoretic constructs of initial F-algebra, catamorphism, and their duals, final coalgebra and anamorphism provide a formal, systematic treatment of recursion in computer science. Here, we use this formalism to explain the systematicity of recursive cognitive capacities without ad hoc assumptions (i.e., to the same explanatory standard used in our account of systematicity for non-recursive capacities). The presence of an initial algebra/final coalgebra explains systematicity because all recursive cognitive capacities, in the domain of interest, factor through (are composed of) the same component process. Moreover, this factorization is unique, hence no further (ad hoc) assumptions are required to establish the intrinsic connection between members of a group of systematically-related capacities. This formulation also provides a new perspective on the relationship between recursive cognitive capacities. In particular, the link between number and language does not depend on recursion, as such, but on the underlying functor on which the group of recursive capacities is based. Thus, many species (and infants) can employ recursive processes without having a full-blown capacity for number and language.
Project description:Humans regularly produce new utterances that are understood by other members of the same language community. Linguistic theories account for this ability through the use of syntactic rules (or generative grammars) that describe the acceptable structure of utterances. The recursive, hierarchical embedding of language units (for example, words or phrases within shorter sentences) that is part of the ability to construct new utterances minimally requires a 'context-free' grammar that is more complex than the 'finite-state' grammars thought sufficient to specify the structure of all non-human communication signals. Recent hypotheses make the central claim that the capacity for syntactic recursion forms the computational core of a uniquely human language faculty. Here we show that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar. They are also able to classify new patterns defined by the grammar and reliably exclude agrammatical patterns. Thus, the capacity to classify sequences from recursive, centre-embedded grammars is not uniquely human. This finding opens a new range of complex syntactic processing mechanisms to physiological investigation.
Project description:It has been suggested that external and/or internal limitations paradoxically may lead to superior learning, that is, the concepts of starting small and less is more (Elman, ; Newport, ). In this paper, we explore the type of incremental ordering during training that might help learning, and what mechanism explains this facilitation. We report four artificial grammar learning experiments with human participants. In Experiments 1a and 1b we found a beneficial effect of starting small using two types of simple recursive grammars: right-branching and center-embedding, with recursive embedded clauses in fixed positions and fixed length. This effect was replicated in Experiment 2 (N = 100). In Experiment 3 and 4, we used a more complex center-embedded grammar with recursive loops in variable positions, producing strings of variable length. When participants were presented an incremental ordering of training stimuli, as in natural language, they were better able to generalize their knowledge of simple units to more complex units when the training input "grew" according to structural complexity, compared to when it "grew" according to string length. Overall, the results suggest that starting small confers an advantage for learning complex center-embedded structures when the input is organized according to structural complexity.
Project description:According to a controversial hypothesis, a characteristic unique to human language is recursion. Contradicting this hypothesis, it has been claimed that the starling, one of the two animal species tested for this ability to date, is able to distinguish acoustic stimuli based on the presence or absence of a center-embedded recursive structure. In our experiment we show that another songbird species, the zebra finch, can also discriminate between artificial song stimuli with these structures. Zebra finches are able to generalize this discrimination to new songs constructed using novel elements belonging to the same categories, similar to starlings. However, to demonstrate that this is based on the ability to detect the putative recursive structure, it is critical to test whether the birds can also distinguish songs with the same structure consisting of elements belonging to unfamiliar categories. We performed this test and show that seven out of eight zebra finches failed it. This suggests that the acquired discrimination was based on phonetic rather than syntactic generalization. The eighth bird, however, must have used more abstract, structural cues. Nevertheless, further probe testing showed that the results of this bird, as well as those of others, could be explained by simpler rules than recursive ones. Although our study casts doubts on whether the rules used by starlings and zebra finches really provide evidence for the ability to detect recursion as present in "context-free" syntax, it also provides evidence for abstract learning of vocal structure in a songbird.
Project description:Plant recovery rates after herbivory are thought to be a key factor driving recursion by herbivores to sites and plants to optimise resource-use but have not been investigated as an explanation for recursion in large herbivores. We investigated the relationship between plant recovery and recursion by elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabah. We identified 182 recently eaten food plants, from 30 species, along 14 × 50 m transects and measured their recovery growth each month over nine months or until they were re-browsed by elephants. The monthly growth in leaf and branch or shoot length for each plant was used to calculate the time required (months) for each species to recover to its pre-eaten length. Elephant returned to all but two transects with 10 eaten plants, a further 26 plants died leaving 146 plants that could be re-eaten. Recursion occurred to 58% of all plants and 12 of the 30 species. Seventy-seven percent of the re-eaten plants were grasses. Recovery times to all plants varied from two to twenty months depending on the species. Recursion to all grasses coincided with plant recovery whereas recursion to most browsed plants occurred four to twelve months before they had recovered to their previous length. The small sample size of many browsed plants that received recursion and uneven plant species distribution across transects limits our ability to generalise for most browsed species but a prominent pattern in plant-scale recursion did emerge. Plant recovery time was a good predictor of time to recursion but varied as a function of growth form (grass, ginger, palm, liana and woody) and differences between sites. Time to plant recursion coincided with plant recovery time for the elephant's preferred food, grasses, and perhaps also gingers, but not the other browsed species. Elephants are bulk feeders so it is likely that they time their returns to bulk feed on these grass species when quantities have recovered sufficiently to meet their intake requirements. The implications for habitat and elephant management are discussed.