Agentivity and intentionality

Tom Givon tgivon at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Thu Mar 8 12:06:34 UTC 2001

RE: AGENT: I think what Scott alludes to is that you cannot reduce all
instances of 'agent' to 'intentional'. But if AGENT is a natural human
cognitive category -- i.e. constructed as a PROTOTYPE with multiple
features--you need not assume that ALL instances of AGENT will always
display the feature of intentionality, but only that a large majority
will (say at least 90%, my guess?). Natural categories are not
exceptionless, they just represent an strong statistical trend
(preponderance of evidence). So, I suspect, if a usage-based assessment
will be made of supposed 'agentive' or 'active' verbs in text, you'll
find a very robust association of AGENT with intentionality. As well as
with 'control', 'acting', 'responsibility', and 'blame-worthiness'. So
one would expect, as in other natural categories a-la E. Rosch, to have
strong but not absolute FEATURE ASSOCIATION. If someone wishes to
falsify this hypothesis, it's relatively easy to do so, with a large
enough text (say 50 pp.). But until one did such quantification, it is
not clear that we have sufficient ground for treating AGENT differently
that all other natural cognitive categories. They are all
frequency-driven. Cheers,  TG

Noel Rude wrote:
> on 3/7/01 10:41 AM, Scott Delancey at delancey at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU wrote:
> >
> > But it's abundantly clear that intentionality is not part of the
> > semantic role (or whatever you choose to call them) Agent, and I
> > honestly have a very hard time understanding how anyone could suppose
> > that it is.
> Folks,
> Doesn't any theory have to allow for metaphor and extended use and
> abstraction and feature suppression and all that?  We all know that
> intentionality is there in human thought -- we've got a word for it -- so I
> guess what we're questioning is whether it ever drives grammar -- is it a
> category of grammar?
> If we deny that Agents are Intentional Causes then we must believe that
> intention is only inferred pragmatically, that a clause like "I broke it" in
> no way of itself implies intentionality, that this comes only from the
> broader context or situation.  But which is easier, to suppress it in the
> context you give or add it in other contexts?
> Surely we cannot so easily do away with intention as something fundamental
> and primitive in Natural Language.  If you remove intention from the grammar
> then you will have to build into your pragmatic discription some principles
> for inferring it.
> Intention is there lexically lurking in contrasts like look vs. see, pour
> vs. spill, and, really, when you think of it, isn't even the category
> <Human> better seen as <Potentially Intentional>?  Sahaptin, an American
> Indian language in these here parts, even has a derivational prefix XA-
> whose basic meaning seems to be 'unintentional' (and by extension
> 'suddenly') -- it very often detransitivizes, as, for ex., tamAnuun 'throw
> into water' versus XAtamanuun 'fall into water'.
> Why shouldn't Agent (in the prototypical sense) be seen as a complex of at
> least Cause and Intention and Natural Language as flexible enough to allow
> for the suppression (even degrees of suppression or enhancement) of one or
> the other or both these features?  It just seems to me that at whatever
> level we deal with intention, deal with them we must.
> Noel

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