Agentivity and intentionality

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Thu Mar 8 06:49:36 UTC 2001

In a message dated 3/7/2001 4:26:00 PM, nrude at UCINET.COM writes:
<< 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 description some principles
for inferring it. >>

I guess that in a very devout or animistic culture or one where Fates
capriciously control all things, there is an intention and an Agent to be
found in every action.  "Not a single sparrow falls,..."  In such a
worldview, it really doesn't matter whether you are "hit by a rock" or "a
rock hits you."  Since both events were in a sense sent by an outside force
exercising very human-like intention.

You'll notice this sort of thing in reading Homer.  There has been a long
argument about when and if Homer was using metaphor or being literal.  But
there are times when even the metaphor seems to convey a very foreign concept
of intention.

For example, "hôs Achilê' otrune menos kai thumos agênôr antion elthemenai
megalêtoros Aineiao." ( Achilles, exhorted by [his] courage and
hard-headed spirit, comes to face the great-hearted Aeneas.)  Now <otruntus>
is a "cheering on", an "exhortation" in Homer and later, something often done
by a cheering crowd or encouraging on-lookers. It will also be used later to
describe spurring a horse.  What feels so odd about this construction is that
it makes Achilles' menos and thumos seem like avid spectators.  And
definitely separate from Achilles himself, with intentions of their own.

If this description was meant in anyway to describe what Achilles was
feeling, it must have felt weird.  At least to us moderns.

And I'm wondering if vestiges of this kind of thinking don't survive and
account for the presence or absence of intention markings in the words we use.

Oh shit!  I broke it!
Yes!  I broke it!
Good!  I broke it!
I broke it.

Oh shit! I built it!
Oh shit! I fixed it!

A word like "break" seems to be intention-neutral.  It could be intentional
or accidental.  But words like build and fix don't seem to make sense without
the inference of intention.  The two sets almost reflect different
points-of-view about how much intention is worth mentioning.

<<Intention is there lexically lurking in contrasts like look vs. see, pour
vs. spill,...>>

Perhaps these are vestiges of two different world views, inherited together
into the modern language?

Steve Long

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