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Saturday, November 25, 2006 -- 9:43 am

One issue that's been grabbing my attention a lot lately is the notion of evidentiality. I know that Turkish, among other languages, has markers for allowing you to indicate whether what you're reporting is hearsay rather than firsthand knowledge. Hopi permits similar indications. But it seems that Amazonian languages are rich in mandatory evidential markers in a way completely foreign to English speakers. Thus some of them require you to specify whether you were an eyewitness to the event you're reporting, or an earwitness, or you heard about it from someone else, or you deduced that it happened from known facts, or you assume that it happened, or the statement is a necessary and inevitable truth. This presents all sorts of opportunities and pitfalls in professions charged with reporting on past events and reaching conclusions as to what happened based on inconsistent accounts.

English, of course, is capable of expressing all of these things, although it's very difficult to tease that information out of the uninitiated. A lot of people confidently narrate events with nothing to rely on but a series of assumptions about how things might have gone, and simply look baffled when you try to probe the basis for their account. Others, when asked what happened, apparently don't remember and instinctively lapse into a series of "would have's". And then there's that ugly, litigious term, "allegedly".

As an aesthetic matter, is it preferable to have a rich but compulsory palatte of evidential markers, or to be able to express the same sorts of notions only through circumlocutions? My taste in languages leans toward the polysynthetic end of the spectrum, but this is not simply a rhetorical question. It appears that native speakers of languages rich in evidential markers are instinctively familiar with notions such as the difference between hearsay and firsthand knowledge, whereas even sophisticated speakers of English sometimes struggle in their application of the concept. On the other hand, requiring each and every conjugated verb to carry an evidential marker would appear to sacrifice some of the ambiguity possible in English, just as English uses one word "we" to cover both "you and I" and "they and I", while Cherokee and Aymara force the speaker to choose between the two; and English can be casually ambiguous in its specification of "two" or "more than two", while Marshallese, I hear, requires the speaker to specify one, two, three, four, five, or many. I am still grappling with Aymara's supposedly ternary logic system.

The spectrum between ambiguity and precision is, of course, an essential component of expression. I prefer precision, and as noted, am one of those people who struggles to extract clarity and precision from others. But ambiguity is, sometimes, convenient. Why not simply make these elaborate evidential markers optional?

My concern is that evidential markers would not be used, if they were optional. Which makes for an interesting reversal of my typical preferences.

Saturday, November 25, 2006 -- 9:40 am

Again, it's been a while since I could touch a computer for any sort of leisure activities. Internet connection is back up. A new computer is on the way, and I'm making the most of a lazy Thanksgiving weekend to get organized before the storm hits again.