LINGUIST List 10.415

Thu Mar 18 1999

Sum: 'I see' meaning 'I understand'

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Robert Angelino, Re: When/Where did "I see" mean "I understand"?? - Some reponses...

Message 1: Re: When/Where did "I see" mean "I understand"?? - Some reponses...

Date: Thu, 18 Mar 1999 19:39:20 -0700
From: Robert Angelino <>
Subject: Re: When/Where did "I see" mean "I understand"?? - Some reponses...

Recently, High Tower Software posted a question to this newsgroup. Our
query was about the origin of the metaphor "I see" used to mean "I
understand". We received responses from around the world, along with
numerous requests that we share our findings.

Our question was posted because we have developed visualization
technology that uses a very powerful and abstract 3-D approach to data
visualization that makes seeing data equivalent to understanding it.
Hence our interest in the linguistic origin of the relation between
seeing and understanding. High Tower does not currently have cognitive
scientists or linguistics experts on its staff, and we would therefore
be interested in additional comments from anyone interested in pursuing

this topic with us further. Our data visualization technology is
described at our website,

In addition to the topic at hand, we are interested in exchanging
thoughts and information about perception and cognition with respect to
data visualization in general and our approach to data visualization in

The interesting thing about the responses we received to our query is
that they come from around the world, and indicate that the metaphor is
so deeply imbedded in human cognition that it seems to transcend
language. For those that have asked us to share our findings, the
responses we collected wtih regard to seeing = understanding are
attached below.

?Here's what the OED says about this meaning of the verb to see
(followed by an example of such use from 1200 AD):

3. a. (fig.) trans. To perceive mentally (an immaterial object, a
quality, etc.); to apprehend by thought (a truth, the answer to a
question), to recognize the force of (a demonstration). Often with
reference to metaphorical light or eyes. Also, to foresee or forecast
(an event, trend, etc., to understand. Also, to see (something) coming:
to foresee or anticipate.

As the sense of sight affords far more complete and definite information

respecting external objects than any other of the senses, mental
perceptions are in many (perhaps in all) languages referred to in visual

terms, and often with little or no consciousness of metaphor.

c1200 Ormin 13590 Whamm u urrh Drihhtin sest nu__u Wi innsihht off
in herrte.?

James Vanden Bosch
Department of English
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, MI

?Some other languages seem to treat 'hear' in a similar way: French
'entendre' can mean to understand, for example, and I think it's the
same in Italian.?

Glynis Baguley
Centre for the Study of African Economies
University of Oxford
Institute of Economics and Statistics
Oxford, England

?One way of dealing with this correlation is by looking at it from a
cognitive perspective, i.e. UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING. We witness here a
conceptual metaphor of embodiment, where what is mental/cognitive is
understood in terms of a more manageable neuro-physical activity of the

Zouhair Maalej, Assistant Professor
University of Tunis, Tunisia

?You'll find that verbs of visual perception developing meanings to do
with understanding is very common cross-linguistically. ?

Nikolas Gisborne,
English Department, Hong Kong University

In Ancient Greek the verb 'oida' "I know" is cognate with the perfect
form of the Latin verb 'video' "I see"; ie, the Greek translation of "I
have seen" has come to mean "I know". I imagine a similar thing has
happened in English

Claire Bowern
Australian National University

?My immediate reaction is that one hardly needs an explanation for the
special case of "I see" as phrase interjected to show that one is
following what is said, because it is quite normal in the kind of
English I am familiar with to use "see" more generally as a short
synonym of "understand", "follow reasoning". "Yes, I can see that", "Do

you see what I mean??, and so on are all quite ordinary usage.

Geoffrey Sampson
School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, GB

?In African languages it is very widespread, that the verb for 'to hear'

also means ''to understand' (i.e. cognitive process). The verb for 'to
see' is used more frequently for the conceptual process "to realize".?

Dr. Mechthild Reh, Prof.
Institute for African Studies
Hamburg University, Germany

?The claim is that a metaphor is a mapping from one domain to another,
not merely a comparison between two items. Eve Sweetser takes the
specific metaphor, "the mind is a body moving in space," and shows how
much of the way we talk about mental behavior reflects physical
behavior. Hence understanding is "seeing," "grasping," etc. Sweetser?s
book is where you'll find the specific "I see" = "I understand"
references. The metaphor goes a good bit beyond the simple pair "I see"

= "I understand." Thus "he's blind to the ramifications" = "he doesn't
understand the ramifications"; "they're in the dark" = "they don't
understand," "why do you keep closing your eyes to what's happening?" =
"why do you refuse to understand what's happening?" and so on.?

Linda Coleman
Associate Professor
Director, Freshman Writing Program
Department of English Language and Literature
University of Maryland

?According to the Oxford English Dictionary, `see' has been used to
mean`perceive, comprehend, understand' since about 1200. I suggest you
consult the OED for details and examples of use.?

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton , England

?Ancient Greek oida 'I know' (infintive eidein) is cognate with English

wit, witness, German wissen 'know,' and also with Latin videre 'see,'
Russian videt' 'see.'?

Dr. Richard Laurent
MCA Research,
Arlington Virginia

?The earliest attestation of the use given in OED1 is 1200 A.D. There
are a number of citations from the 13th and 14th centuries, including
Chaucer. I have written about the relationship between mental and visual

uses of SEE in child language acquisition. Notice that sentences like
"Let's see what't in the box" can be interpreted in either a visual or
mental way ('Let's see the object(s) in the box' or 'Let's find out what

the box contains'). Using data from child language corpora, I argue that

such uses serve as a bridge from the visual to the mental meaning.?

Christopher Johnson
Department of Linguistics, UC Berkeley

You might find interesting information about the general kind of
phenomenon your case illustrates -the use of concrete physical entities
or actions to denote abstract mental entities or actions-in books within

the cognitive linguistics tradition (like Sweetser's 'From Etymology to
Pragmatics' or Goldberg's 'Conceptual Structure, Discourse and

Eva Delgado Lavin
English and German Philology Department
Faculty of Philology
University of the Basque Country (Spain)

?The first reference ever noted was when it was used by an English
Monk, Ormin in 1200 AD in a poem he wrote. It can be found in line
13,590. The poem was named after him by others and called the Ormulum.?

Dr. Hertz
California State University Long Beach

Some relevant references in this perspective:

- Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson (1980). "Metaphors We Live By".
Chicago/London: The University of Press.
- Johnson, Mark (1987). "The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of
Meaning, Imagination, and Reason". Chicago/London: The University of
Chicago Press.
- Lakoff, George (1987). "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. What
Categories Reveal about the Mind". Chicago/London: The University of
Chicago Press
-Eve Sweetser, "From etymology to pragmatics: Metaphorical and cultural
aspects of semantic structure" (1990, Cambridge University Press).

Robert Angelino
Director of Software Development
High Tower Software Inc.
(949) 852-2233
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