The Origin of Syntax: agent and action construction

Excerpted from "Agent and Action: the Origin of Syntax", and/or (2007) by Jolanta Lapiak

The world is composed of subjects, objects and verbs ("SVO" in linguistics) - subject and predicate in grammar. Agents (nouns) and actions (verbs) can be found in life from human language to particle-wave.

mobius strip
Mobius strip.

David Armstrong, William C. Stokoe, and Sharman E. Wilcox ("ASW" for short in this page) highlight two essential functions of language: "to make words; that is, to symbolize, signify, and communicate things" and to show "the relations between things and events; that is, to make sentences." [1] A sentence with proper syntax consists of an agent and action or a subject and predicate, arises in a basic sentence. Leonard Shlain describes the analogy:

"space and time are dimensions that locate the positions of things and actions. In speech they constitute the adverbs and adjectives, prepositions and qualifiers - 'always,' 'earlier,' 'over there,' 'later,' 'underneath.' Mass and energy are what is located and what does the locating in time and space. They are sentence's subject and verb; the principal characters and their actions. These four play out the drama of daily existence."[2]

As David Armstrong notes, some linguists and others had been troubled by the "intractable" problem of an evolutionary theory of grammar. William Stokoe proposed a simple solution: semantic phonology, which is "simply a marriage of a noun and a verb."[3] According to Stokoe, a sign is an "agent-verb construction."

For example, the ASL signs/words, "a plane flies," demonstrate an agent-action construction, in which the noun and the verb occur simultaneously, where the handshape and the movement coexist.

A fly flies.

We can easily identify the noun and the verb in this English sentence as these words are separate in place. Whereas in ASL, sometimes a noun and a verb are blended in one that it appears that the noun and the verb are indistinguishable.

But, if we look closer, there are still the noun and the verb, which is what known as "agent-verb construction". Dr. William Stokoe called it semantic phonology, which is "simply a marriage of a noun and a verb."[3]

If this illustration below helps, it's an approximation of the idea of the agent-verb construction.


Imagine the live word fly that moves itself across the screen. Is it a noun or a verb? Ambiguous? It is an example of the agent-verb construction. The form fly is the noun and its movement or action indicates the verb.

ASW give the following equivalents of interchangeable nouns and verbs in English [4]:

His anger annoyed me. My annoyance angered him.
I zeroed in on the question. But my answer scored zero.

"Chinese makes no rigid distinctions between parts of speech. Nouns and verbs are often interchangeable, as may also do duty as adjectives and adverbs."[5]

Here language parallels with the Mobius-like fusion of particle-wave in field theory which is looking at the single, coexisting agent-action construction. Shlain similarly describes Einstein's revolutionary equation E = mc as "a direct extension of his special relativity equations, that blurred the distinction between a field of energy (the verb) and the mass of an object in that field (the noun).[6] Though, I would like to redescribe this idea of "space-mass" as a noun or agent, and "energy-time" as a verb or action, and "field" as a sentence or an agent-action construction.

dandelions video
Jolanta Lapiak. Dandelions, 2006. 2min video.

A word in ASL or a word in English can complementarily function as a noun or a verb, so, too, can an icon. The rock and the dandelion in my video Dandelions function as representational words rather than literal imitation. The subject and object are interchangeabe; the rock leans over the fragile dandelions, which then fight back. The movements of the rock and the dandelions are the action - the verb. This scene illustrates an interplay between an image and a word. The sign-words and the image-words in Dandelions can be also said to be tautological, in Kosuthean sense.

In short, agent-action can occur in both/either linear and/or simultaneous ways, that both coexist, just like inseparable energy-and-mass or space-and-time.

Endnotes / References

[1] ASW, pp 19-20.
[2] Shlain, Leonard. Art and Physics: Parallel visions in space, time and light. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1991., p 324.
[3] Armstrong, David F.; Stokoe, William C; Wilcox, Sherman E. Gesture and the Nature of Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995., pp 91-92.
[4] ASW, p 20.
[5] Watts, Alan. Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975. P 1.
[6] Shlain, p. 325.


Lapiak, Jolanta. "Agent and Action: the Origin of Syntax." and/or. MFA Thesis in conjunction with MFA exhibition, 2007.

Related posts

You may be also interested in noun-verb pairs (derivational morphology).

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.