Hierarchical Linguistic Structure

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Combinations of the individual elements of human language are not only linear but also hierarchical in nature. This means that human language consists not only of precedence relations (e.g. coordination) but also of dominance relations (e.g. subordination). This can be demonstrated at every level of linguistic analysis: phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and also at the level of discourse. While primate (1,2), cetacean, and avian (passerine) (3,4) long call vocalizations may include linear relations at the level of acoustic patterning, there is no documented evidence of any consistent internal hierarchical structure. There have been numerous proposals seeking precursors for hierarchical structure in various aspects of animal cognition and behavior: theory of mind, social cognition related to dominance hierarchies, numerosity, navigation (5), ritual (6), foraging and food preparation (7), etc.


  1. The Bengalese finch: a window on the behavioral neurobiology of birdsong syntax., Okanoya, K. , Ann N Y Acad Sci, 06/2004, Volume 1016, p.724-35, (2004)
  2. The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?, Hauser, M. D., Chomsky N., and Fitch W. T. , Science, 11/2002, Volume 298, Issue 5598, p.1569-79, (2002)
  3. Estimating the Complexity of Animal Behaviour: How Mountain Gorillas Eat Thistles, Byrne, R. W., Corp Nadia, and Byrne Jennifer M. E. , Volume 138, Issue 4, p.525-557, (2001)
  4. A Phonological Analysis of Male Gibbon Singing Behavior, Mitani, J. C., and Marler P. , Behaviour, Volume 109, p.20-45, (1989)
  5. Ritual, mantras & the origin of language, Staal, F. , Amrtdhara, Volume Professor R.N. Dandekar Felicitation Volume, Pune, p.403-425, (1984)