I'm interested in how "see" and "look" relate to each other. I think "hear" and "listen" is similar. Is there specific linguistic terminology that describes how the words relate to each other?

To me it seems like English has no word that similar to "look" for "smell" or "feel". Is that true for most/all languages? Are there languages who do something more clever to handle this area?

  • 1
    For smell there's sniff although that word also carries specific connotations as to the manner and the sound made while doing the action; for feel there's touch. Aug 14, 2014 at 15:45

2 Answers 2


See and look are Sense Verbs. They are, in fact, the two distinct English sense verbs for vision.

There are three varieties of English sense verbs, following the pattern of hear, listen, sound
(only sense verbs of hearing have three distinct forms; sight has two, and the others one apiece)

  • (Non-Volitional verb) I heard the song
    I saw the painting
    I tasted the soup (same for volitional)
    I smelled the soup (same for volitional)
    I felt the fabric (same for volitional)
  • (Volitional verb) I listened to the song
    I looked at the painting
  • (Experiential verb) The song sounded strange (to me)
    The soup looked/tasted/smelled strange (to me)
    The fabric felt strange (to me)

So, basically, you're right. The term you're looking for is "volitional" (meaning doing something on purpose), and it contrasts with "non-volitional" (meaning doing something by accident). It's the same difference as the difference between pour and spill -- pouring is volitional while spilling is non-volitional; otherwise they're the same. There's a lot more syntax involved with sense verbs in English, however.


They are Action Verbs versus Stative Verbs.

Action verbs describe some effort a subject takes. In English, they are look, listen, and so on.

Stative verbs describe state which a subject is in, regardless of whether or not he/she makes any effort to reach that state. In English, they are see, hear, etc.

In English, there are also verbs that describe continuous action, like watch.

As far as I know, many languages have such pairs, for example:

  • Thai: ดู (look) and มอง (stare, goggle) vs. เห็น (see)
  • Ukrainian: дивитися (look) vs. бачити (see)

..and so on

Sorry for a very short answer, but it actually answers the entire question.

  • Another way of saying more or less the same thing is that look, listen are volitional, while see, hear are non-volitional.
    – TKR
    Aug 14, 2014 at 16:49

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