Action Sensitivity in Grammar

A nine-month-old infant can recognize human intentions, for example, she correctly imitates intended but accidentally unfinished or distorted adult’s facial movements. This is a cognitive skill that the most advanced AI technology lacks.
But what are intentions and how do they manifest themselves in human behaviour? Philosophy and psychology have pondered over these questions for centuries and come to the consensus that our capacity to intend and, more importantly, recognize and share intentions of others constitutes the foundation for social behaviour. Natural languages have multiple ways to mark the presence or absence of intentions ranging from a dedicated ‘out-of-control’ morpheme in Lillooet (Salish) and different case marking for subjects of intentional and unintentional actions in Hindi/Urdu to the availability of a co-referential interpretation in subjunctive constructions and nuanced distribution of polarity sensitive indefinites in European languages. It would seem that understanding how natural languages express intentions is a pressing task for linguistics. However, modulo a few notable exceptions, manifestations of intentions in natural languages have mostly been understudied in linguistics. The project is the first systematic inquiry into the issue. Its goal is to answer two principal questions: How is the presence or absence of intentions encoded in natural languages? and Why is it encoded in these particular ways?

Hedde Zeijlstra (PI), Julie Goncharov (Postdoc)