Friday, April 13, 2007

A welcome and a few words on evidentiality

I'd like to welcome Meaghan Fowlie to the Language Nerds Team*. She's assured me that she'll write something as soon as she works herself out from under the end-of-term paper deluge. Anyway, let's hear it for institutional diversity!

Meagan (not to be confused with Meaghan, above,) has recently been complaining that no one else has been posting, and that she feels lonely and awkward. Like, one might imagine, a girl who went to a junior high school dance with a bunch of friends, and is now sitting miserably on a bench beside the DJ's table because everyone's ditched her to go kiss boys on the soccer field, and she hates this song, and she didn't want to come, anyway. Not that that's ever happened or anything.

So I thought I'd drop a few words about evidentiality, a remarkably contentious subject that we've been studying in a seminar this past semester, and then we can argue about it. The definition of evidentiality is somewhat contested, but most people agree that it's concerned with linguistically encoding information source. For example, in her 2004 monograph on the subject, Aikhenvald divided evidentiality into visual (ie, evidence from sight) and non-visual (from another sense) direct evidence and inferred, assumed and reported indirect evidence. Now, Aikhenvald's typology has been criticized** for including only dedicated evidential morphemes*** and, apparently, basing her semantic typology on the system of Tariana, a language she's studied extensively. But, y'know, typology is hard work, especially when dealing with a somewhat ill-defined semantic notion, so props to Aikhenvald.

But the really controversial issue is what relationship evidentiality has to epistemic modality, which essentially, conveys the speaker's degree of certainty in the proposition presented.**** The controversy is understandable: these two notions are often closely linked, as in Western Germanic languages or St'at'imcets. Furthermore, some have asserted that modal judgements are implicit in evidence type, as some types of evidence (generally direct) are more valuable than others.***** But there are counterexamples: for example, in Kashaya Pomo, all evidentially marked statements are taken as certain, and in Plains Cree direct quotes (which is certainly a type of reportative) are considered very valuable evidence.

Now, a bold statement to kickstart debate: I'm with de Haan -- "Epistemic modality evaluates evidence and on the basis of this evaluation assigns a confidence measure to the speaker's utterance. ... An evidential asserts that there is evidence for the speaker's utterance but refuses to interpret the evidence in any way." (1999; italics present in the original.) I will, however, concede that a given morpheme can have both modal and evidential force. What do you think?

*Who's in favour of tee shirts? "TEAM LANGUAGE NERDS": I think the world is ready.
**ie, by me, in my arrogant undergrad seminar papers. But by actual, non-proto linguists, as well.
***Although, apparently, some people think that other strategies for conveying evidential force don't count or something. Oh, what a tangled web...
****See: SIL's somewhat facile treatment, Matthewson's article on St'at'imcets modality and de Haan's evidentiality homepage, if you're interested in reading some divergent viewpoints.
*****Check out Palmer and Frajzyngier's****** 1987 Truth and the compositionality principle: A reply to Palmer and 1985 Truth and the indicative sentence, both in Studies in Language, for examples of these kinds of arguments.
******Holy goodness, but that dude publishes a lot.

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