Big Big Ball! A linguistic update

Ken writes:

Frank’s tacting has become more complicated. Previously he used just to point out the presence of a ball by saying ‘ball’ for which he was duly rewarded by his doting parents. Now however he’s saying ‘big ball’ and even ‘big big ball’ (pronounced: be be baw). The other day at Farmleigh, when he saw the spherical sculpture, he went as far as to say ‘big big big ball’.

Clearly this is rudimentary syntax. He uses other phrases we know as phrases, ‘there you go’ (when giving someone something), ‘good boy’ and ‘I dead’ (when playing dead), and may also have said ‘where’s the boy gone?’ and ‘I need milk’, but in the first place these are all terribly indistinct when he utters them but more importantly, I’ve never heard him recombine the elements of these phrases in any other situation. So they seem to be treated as whole units.

The repetition of ‘big’ interests me. Is this his first foray into the realm of recursive syntax? To say a language has recursive syntax is to say that the grammatical rules of that language allow you to embed sentences inside other sentences (or parts of sentences inside other parts of the same syntactic type). Could the grammar of his language include simple phrase structurerules like these:

An adjectival phrase consists in an optional adjectival phrase followed by an adjective.

This rule would count ‘big’ by itself as an adjectival phrase, because it is an adjective. Here the option of another adjectival phrase is not taken up. The utterance of ‘big big’ would count as an adjectival phrase because ‘big’ itself does and ‘big’ is an adjective (i.e. ‘big’ the adjectival phrase followed by ‘big’ the adjective). And ‘big big big’ would also count as an adjectival phrase by the same reasoning.

If something like this rule is in operation, then what Frank is doing already counts as following/conforming to recursive rules.

On the other hand, we haven’t actually seen or heard him doing as much with other adjectives in his vocabulary like ‘hot’. So maybe what he is doing is simply using repetition as an intensifier. On this way of seeing it, he’s not syntactically recombining the elements of the phrase, he’s simply making saying ‘big’ take longer. It is just that he’s doing it by repeating it rather than by stretching it out (bbbbbbiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigggggggg). He’s following a pragmatic principle that longer equals more.

I don’t think we can say for certain, until he says something like ‘big hot ball’, but he can’t be too far from that stage now. The right thing to say is probably that what he’s doing now is a necessary stage in his development towards recursive syntax.


2 thoughts on “Big Big Ball! A linguistic update

  1. My husband and I – back long before he was my husband or even my boyfriend – once spent an excited afternoon listing the order of adjectives. Why is it always the Big Red Ball, and never the Red Big Ball?

    Size always seems to come first. It is always the little German car, not the German little car. Colour comes before nationality. But then, where does texture go? Why would we talk abut crunchy little chips, but not chewy big sweets?

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