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What’s Special About Human Language? The Contents of the “Narrow Language Faculty” Revisited



In this review, we re-evaluate the recursion-only hypothesis, advocated by Fitch, Hauser and Chomsky (Fitch et al. 2005; Hauser et al. 2002). According to the recursion-only hypothesis, the property that distinguishes human language from animal communication systems is recursion, which refers to the potentially infinite embedding of one linguistic representation within another of the same type. This hypothesis predicts (1) that non-human primates and other animals lack the ability to learn recursive grammar, and (2) that recursive grammar is the sole cognitive mechanism that is unique to human language. We first review animal studies of recursive grammar, before turning to the claim that recursion is a property of all human languages. Finally, we discuss other views on what abilities may be unique to human language.