agency and intentionality

John Bowden jbowden at COOMBS.ANU.EDU.AU
Wed Mar 7 23:37:06 UTC 2001


On the question of agency and intentionality and how they work in grammar,
here's a paper that should be read much more widely than I suspect it has
been.

Van Valin, Robert D. Jr. & David P. Wilkins, 1996.  The case for 'effector':
Case roles, agents, and agentivity revisited.  In Shibatani & Thompson, eds,
Grammatical constructions:  their form and meaning, 289-322.  Oxford:
Clarendon Press.

Maybe it's not such a bad idea to have some new labels for case roles if
many of us seem to be using an old familiar one like 'agent' in lots of
different ways?   Amongst other things, Van Valin and Wilkins argue
convincingly that a role they call 'effector', which is pretty much an agent
stripped of intentionality, is what most grammars are sensitive too rather
than any intentional agent.  Using the notion of effector rather than agent
buys them a whole lot of stuff, including the ability to handle sentences
like 'this key opens the door' which is just as difficult to handle with the
intentional agent role as Scott DeLancey's 'Shit! I broke it!'.

I wouldn't want to deny that fully intentional agents are important in some
languages sometimes, but I'm with Scott DeLancey on this one: it seems to me
that they're of pretty marginal significance most of the time.

John Bowden
Linguistics Department
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
Australian Natiuonal University
Canberra, ACT 0200
AUSTRALIA

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