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Volition (linguistics)

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Subject: Ergative case, Grammatical conjugation, Volition, Modern Standard Tibetan grammar
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Volition (linguistics)


In linguistics, volition is a concept that distinguishes whether the subject, or agent of a particular sentence intended an action or not. Volition concerns the idea of control and for the purposes outside of psychology and cognitive science, is considered the same as intention in linguistics. Volition can then be expressed in a given language using a variety of possible methods. These sentence forms usually indicate that a given action has been done intentionally, or willingly.

In English, volition can be expressed by adding a phrase along the lines of “because I did something to it”. An entire situation using this type of sentence is then comprised, syntactically, of at least two separate events - the thing being done and the thing that caused it.[1] That same sentence that used an additional clause can be expressed as a simple sentence, which can be considered a single event.[2] An example of each sentence form is shown below.

a. The tree fell because I did something to it (e.g., because I hacked at it with an axe)
Event 1: The tree fell
Event 2: I did something to it
b. I felled the tree.
Event 1: I felled the tree (Notice that this cannot be separated into two distinct events. The events would be incomplete if this were attempted. For example, "I felled" and "the tree" OR "I" and "felled the tree")

See control (linguistics) for more verb examples and Applicative voice for preposition examples on expressing causative intentions in English.

There are verbs in English that already have the semantics of intention as part of their lexical entry. The intentionality of a verb like ‘promise’ is part of what speakers of English know about the word.[3]

Ways of Marking Volition

The way a particular language expresses volition, or control, in a sentence is not universal. Neither is any given linguist's approach to volition. Linguists may take a primarily semantic or primarily syntactic approach to understanding volition. Still others use a combination of semantics and syntax to approach the problem of volition.[4] Some languages may use specific affixes on syntactic categories to denote whether the agent intends an action or not.[5] This may, in turn, also affect the syntactic structure of a sentence in the sense that a particular verb may only select a volitional agent. Others, like English, do not have an explicit method of marking lexical categories for volition or non-volition.

However, even though some verbs in English may seem like they can only be done intentionally, there are ways to alter the way it is understood. When English speakers want to be clear about whether an action was done intentionally or not, phrases such as “on purpose”, or “accidentally” are included in the sentence. An example is shown below.

a. I kicked her doll.
(the agent kicked something on purpose/intentionally)
b. I accidentally kicked her doll. (e.g., while I was walking around in her bedroom)
(the agent kicked something unintentionally)


Case Marking

Sinhala actively uses case marking to distinguish between volitional and non-volitional agents.[6]

An example comparing a volitional event and a non-volitional event is shown below with the gloss and its English translation.


a. Ma-mə kawi kiənə-wa
I.volition poetry tell.A.TNS
'I recite poetry.'
b. Ma-ʈə kawi kiəwenə-wa
I.non-volition poetry tell.B.TNS
'I started reading poetry (despite myself).'

In Hindi, volition can be expressed with certain verbs, when the subject did something on purpose the subject noun gets the ergative case suffix, if the subject did not intend to do something, the subject noun is in the nominative case instead.


a. Rām khãs-a
'Ram coughed.'
b. Rām-ne khãs-a
'Ram coughed (purposefully).'

Use of Auxiliaries

Some languages use auxiliary verbs to specify that an action was done with volition. Auxiliary verbs may also be used to mark the opposite condition, a lack of volition or control.

Japanese is one language that exhibits both auxiliaries indicating volition and auxiliaries indicating lack of volition. The verb aru has a basic meaning of 'be' or 'stay' and is used with inanimate subjects. As an auxiliary verb, in the form -te-aru, it can be used in conjunction with verbs of volition to express that something is in a certain state as the result of some purposeful human intervention.[7]


ki ga taoshite-aru


'the tree has been felled' [8]

In contrast, the verb iru can be used as an auxiliary with non-volitional intransitive verbs to simply indicate a state of being, without the element of volition. Iru also has a basic meaning of 'be' or 'stay', but is used with animate subjects. In this use as an auxiliary verb, iru appears in the form -te-iru.

volition neutral:

ki ga taorete-iru


'the tree has fallen (and, is lying on the ground)' [9]

In contrast with the previous volition indicating and volition neutral auxiliaries, an auxiliary form of the verb shimau ('finish, put away') can be used to mark a lack of volition. Used in the form -te-shimau (or -te-shimat-ta in the past), this auxiliary marks an action as completed, overlaid with sense of regret, embarrassment, surprise, or lack of control.[10] [11] .[12] In casual speech, shimau may be shortened to -chau (or -chat-ta in the past) as seen in the first example. [13]

lack of volition

neji hazure-chat-ta


'the screw came off (to my surprise)' [14]

pasupooto o nakushite-shimat-ta

passport lose-COMPL-PST

'I lost my passport' [15]

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Volition is prominent in active–stative languages with fluid-S. In a study by Matthew Rispoli, expert in psycholinguistics, there are at least three dimensions along which transitive and intransitive verbs may be grouped and differentiated. The three dimensions are 1) case marking, 2) locus of change animacy (theme animacy), and 3) planning, as indicated by the appropriate use of verb suffixes denoting request, desire, and prohibition [16].

Case marking

Transitive and intransitive action verb groups share common conceptual ground. The transitive and intransitive action verb groups can be contrasted on a formal dimension of case marking because the two verb groups have different syntactic relations to the theme [17].

Theme animacy

According to Rispoli, semantic information concerning the locus of change, and therefore theme, may further serve to distinguish the two groups. Some verbs typically refer to animate loci of change, for example, ’sit’ (intransitive) and ’play’ (intransitive), while other verbs seem very odd with animate themes, for example ’take’ (transitive) and ’drink’ (transitive). Still other action verbs seem to apply to vehicles and animate loci of change, for example, ’run’ (intransitive). The theme animacy dimension is conceptualized as being based on a combination of features: biological animacy and movement. It is posited that a number of cues may give rise to the impression of animacy. The first is the biological fact of being animal. The second is initiation of self-movement. At one pole of the dimension are true animates. They are animal and are capable of initiating self-movement. At the opposite pole are inert inanimates, which are neither animal nor capable of self-initiated movement. Between the two poles are animate surrogates and vehicles. Animate surrogates are dolls and pictures of animates. Vehicles are mobile machines like airplanes and cars [18].

Planned action

Also shown in Rispoli’s study was that certain non-syntactic dimensions are common to all action verbs. Actions may be either planned or unplanned. The planning dimension is partially reflected in syntax by the agent or actor roles. An animate agent is a planner who instigates an action, and the agent may be separate from the locus of change. However, some actions have agents that are identical with the locus of change, and these are typically referred to by intransitive actions. The actors of intransitive verbs such as ’walk’ (intransitive), or ’sit’ (intransitive) are also planners. Nevertheless, there are some intransitive verbs, such as ’break’ (intransitive) and ’open’ (intransitive) which do not typically take animate themes, and in which the locus of change is not considered an actor or agent. It is possible that these intransitive verbs are not distinguished from transitive verbs on the basis of theme animacy, in which case their theme referents typically will be inanimate. However, these verbs are more likely to refer to unplanned actions, in which case they will not occur in requests, imperatives, desideratives or prohibitions. Thus, an interaction of locus of change animacy and the planned nature of an action provides the basis for discriminating transitive from intransitive action verbs. An observable indicator that correlates with planning is the expression of request, desire and prohibition of action. Some languages, such as Japanese, do this with verb suffixes and auxiliaries [19].

See also


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