Friday, May 1, 2009

word of the week: recursion

Besides the other things I am "currently reading", I am also reading Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett. The book is about his years living with and studying the Piraha Indians ( that last "a" has a tilde over it - not an option on blogspot that I know of - and the whole thing, which is Portuguese, is pronounced "pee-da-HAN"). The Piraha, though, call themselves the "Hiaitiihi" - with stress accents on the first, second, and fourth "i's" (also not a text option I can find). As if that isn't bad enough, it seems each vowel is pronounced separately and not combined into any dipthongs like the "ea" in "great."

I found out about the book while spelunking through the internet helping my sister find audio books to order that she could listen to while at work. From there we looked for a book group she could join in Cleveland. From there we looked down the schedule of books for the book group we discovered and found Don't Sleep.

Lynn put the book on reserve with her library but I was jonesing for something to read at night and found getting it for both of us (and Matt, eventually) a good enough reason to rush around to bookstores until I found it. I am really enjoying it, especially since the Hiaitiihi are so strange, linguistically and otherwise, that they point out some good things to consider should one ever need to write about aliens, human or extra-terrestrial.

But on to the word-of-the-week. Recursion is something the Hiaitiihi don't have in their language. Something that was previously assumed to be an inherent part of all human language (and therefore thinking). Recursion means, roughly, "going back to itself". We've all been annoyed by recursion when looking up a word in the dictionary and findng something like this: "incontrovertible: that which cannot be controverted". That's recursion in it's most basic form. There is mathematical recursion, of which a well-known example is the Fibonacci series. As for recursion in linguistics, I think it is when a sentence folds clauses into it that refer back to it, as in "There's that guy I told you about last week." But for the real deal (without useful examples) try this:

Skip down to the section on recursion in language and in a fine example of some kind of recursion, you will find ... Daniel Everett, author of Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Your assignment, now, should you chose to accept it, is to use "recursion" in a sentence before the week is out. Which reminds me to remind everyone that if you find receiving this blog tedious or burdensome, let me know, and I will delete your address from the list. Whereas if you found this spot by accident or know someone else who might want to get this blog, also let me know and I will put you on the fujikofarm googlegroup list.


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