Agentivity and intentionality

Noel Rude nrude at UCINET.COM
Thu Mar 8 19:34:30 UTC 2001

OK -- from the hinterlands again:

This fuss over "Intention" -- how might it relate to our Functionalist -
Formalist divide?  Formalists are more likely to designate categories with
Greek letters or even numbers (as in Relational Grammar), whereas
functionalists are generally less fearful of suggestive labels like "primary
topic", "present relevance", and -- I had thought -- "intention".

We all -- at least in our less radical wings -- subscribe to both form and
function, but one place we differ is in the perceived link between the two.
The fundamental categories of the functionalist, as I said, tend to be
labeled with respect to meaning/function.  And the fundamental categories of
the formalist, whose main tenet is the autonomy of structure (and the
arbitrariness of the sign even at an abstract level like "theta" roles), are
therefore units of structure.

Now it is interesting how we still tend to have this convergence, as where
functionalists and formalists alike talk about Agents.  We're both talking
about the same abstract entity even though we may differ in what we want to
call it.

So here's the rub: Do we -- as functionalists -- gain anything by describing
the Agent PROTOTYPE?  I think so.  And not only will this bring us closer to
the folks in psychology/cogsci, it gets us a lot of mileage in our
grammatical descriptions.  If Agents are prototypically intentional, then we
not only account for those supposedly few areas of grammar and particular
languages that formally distinguish between intentional and unintentional
subjects, we also more accurately account for the vast majority of Agents in
all languages which are intentional.

We also account for the comparitive rarety of formal Active - Stative
systems.  If Agents are intentional except when context demands otherwise,
then grammaticalizing such a distinction should be rare.  Put another way --
if linguistic Agency is completely indifferent to intentionality then one
would expect 'on purpose' affixes to be more common.  My guess is that
'accidentally' affixes are the more common.  It's checkable, no?

Formalists, perhaps, while not necessarily denying that most Agents are
intentional, will prefer to leave this observation out of their "linguistic"
descriptions and let the psychologists or others who deal with meaning -
function deal with intention.  The tack we take depends a lot -- I'd say --
on just how far to one side or the other of the formalist - functionalist
divide we lean.


on 3/8/01 3:59 AM, dan everett at dan_everett at SIL.ORG wrote:

> But let's try to make this talk of agents empirical in the following
> way: is the intentional vs. nonintentional actor distinction causally
> implicated in any interesting set of generalizations
> crosslinguistically or within a single language? Or is this merely a
> conceptual distinction, useful perhaps for human psychology, but not
> for human language? If there are such generalizations, then we need
> both kinds. If there are none, then we do not.
> Now, a wide range of linguists, from Beth Levin to Bob Van Valin, have
> concluded that the syntax does not, in general, need to appeal to
> separate classes of actors based on intentionality. Tom suggests the
> same in his concept of prototype. The question in regard to prototypes
> is whether there are *linguistically* significant generalizations to
> be gained by introducing such an entity into *linguistics* at all
> (whether it is necessary in psychology or not is irrelevant). Role and
> Reference Grammar (and other models, from Chomskyan theory to
> Tagmemics) has/ve concluded that in fact prototypes like this lead to
> no syntactic ends, merely obfuscating results. The best
> generalizations, by and large, so RRG contends, are in terms of the
> Macroroles Actor and Undergoer.
> At one level there are intentional vs. nonintentional actors which we
> can all recognize, e.g. in examples likethe one Scott presented. And
> some languages, say, perhaps, Acehnese, may indeed use such notions in
> its syntax. But other languages may not. Generally the answer is that
> this distinction isn't made much of crosslinguistically, but there can
> be many exceptions to this.
> We need to be careful to allow for flexibility in what we assume to be
> relevant crosslinguistically, lest we be mistaken for proponents of
> Universal Grammar, rather than what I consider to be the much more
> interesting (empirically) proposal of Boas, i.e. that we are looking
> not for UG but for 'patterns'.
> Dan Everett

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