Publication details [#1628]

Voinov, Vitaly. 2013. ‘Seeing’ is ‘trying’: The relation of visual perception to attemptive modality in the world's languages. Language and Cognition 5 (1) : 61–80. 20 pp.
Publication type
Article in journal
Publication language
Place, Publisher
Cambridge , UK: Cambridge University Press


This paper examines the relationship between the concepts of ‘seeing’ and ‘attempting/trying’ in various languages. These concepts have so far been found to be co-lexified in languages spoken in Eurasia, Papua New Guinea, India and West Africa, with an added implicature of politeness present in some languages when this lexical item is used in directives. After establishing a cross-linguistic sample, the paper proposes a specific grammaticalization mechanism as responsible for producing this semantic relationship. The explanation centers on a process involving metaphorical transfer, the loss of semantic features, generalization, and a specific syntactic context conducive to this meaning shift. First, the Mind-as-Body metaphor is applied to the mind-related notion of ‘seeing an object’ to derive the body-related notion of ‘controlling an object’, as has previously been demonstrated to be the case in the history of certain Indo-European languages. Second, semantic bleaching causes the meaning component of physical sight to be lost from the overall meaning of the morpheme, and semantic generalization allows attempted actions to be mentally treated the same as physical objects that are manipulated. Finally, the context in which this meaning shift occurs is posited as constructions involving multiverbs, such as serial verbs or converbs.