LINGUIST List 30.1346

Tue Mar 26 2019

Review: Cognitive Science; Discourse Analysis; Linguistic Theories; Pragmatics; Semantics: Foolen, de Hoop, Mulder (2018)

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Date: 29-Jan-2019
From: Marta Donazzan <>
Subject: Evidence for Evidentiality
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Ad Foolen
EDITOR: Helen de Hoop
EDITOR: Gijs Mulder
TITLE: Evidence for Evidentiality
SERIES TITLE: Human Cognitive Processing 61
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Marta Donazzan, Laboratoire de Linguistique de Nantes (UMR 6310)


The book “Evidence for Evidentiality” is centered around the definition of the notion of evidentiality and on the empirical arguments supporting it. The chapters collected in the volume are updated and elaborated versions of talks presented at a thematic workshop on Empirical Evidence for Evidentiality held in Nijmegen in 2014.

Evidentiality may be defined as the linguistic encoding of the speaker’s information source for a given statement. Two issues immediately arise from this definition. Since statements encode propositions, one may wonder what the relation is between the marking of evidentiality, which has the function of making the speaker’s commitment explicit, and epistemic modality, which is traditionally considered as a way of encoding the speaker’s knowledge. The first part of the book addresses this issue under the heading of the question “What do we know?”, and comprises contributions investigating the relation between evidence and knowledge from both the speaker’s and the hearer’s perspective.

The contribution by Henrik Bergqvist, “Evidentiality as a stance: event types and speaker roles”, serves as an introductory chapter outlining the relation between evidentiality and epistemic modality. Casting his analysis in a referential theory of evidentiality, the author makes a point for the autonomy of evidentials from modals. Related issues are explored in the following chapters, which rather focus on empirical cases.

Benjamin Brosig, in his paper “Factual vs. evidential? The past tense forms of Khalkha Mongolian” explores the relation between evidential marking and tense-aspectual marking in a set of inflectional elements of the Mongolian verb. Starting from a large corpus of spontaneous speech, Brosig elicited the interpretation of three evidential morphemes that are typically used in past tense, and draws a descriptive generalisation of their respective meaning that is based on the two variables of established/non established knowledge and direct/indirect evidence.

Two closely related studies are presented by Helen de Hoop et al (“I think and I believe: evidential expressions in Dutch”) and Gijs Mulder (“Yo creo que as a marker of evidentiality and epistemic modality”). The authors are dealing with the description and analysis of the evidential interpretation of expressions such as “I believe” and “I think” in, respectively, Dutch and peninsular Spanish, and draw their data from corpora based on Twitter conversations. Although these expressions can all be considered as instantiations of inferential evidentiality in the languages under study, they show an interesting degree of differentiation as well. De Hoop et al. show that the Dutch expressions for “I think” and “I believe” (“ik denk” and “ik geloof”, respectively) do not show the same distribution, and they conclude that, while “I think” is an activity verb selecting an agentive external argument, “I believe” behaves as a psychological verb, which requires an experiencer subject. As a consequence, the type of evidence evoked by “I believe” is less inferential, and more impressionistic, than the one implied by the use of “I think”. Spanish “believe”-evidential offers yet another case. Mulder argues that, while it may be analysed as a case of inferential evidential, “yo creo que”, in its formulaic pattern, may also express other non-literal readings besides evidentiality, a datum that the author takes as a possible sign of its grammaticalization in the language.

Minna Jaakola’s “Finnish evidential adverbs in argumentative texts” closes the first section of the book. This study deals with non-inflectional evidential expressions in Finnish, namely the adverbs derived from the Finnish verb tietää “know”, which are examined in a specific register, that of reader’s comments on online newspapers. The choice of investigating this restricted corpus enables the author to focus on the epistemic access to knowledge and its various meaning types.

The second issue that appears to be central to current debate in the linguistic community has to do with the very definition of evidentiality as an autonomous linguistic category. The debate, which is evoked also by the authors in various places, can be summarized as follows. As a grammatical category, evidentiality should be defined by dedicated linguistic means of expression, such as “inflections, clitics or other free syntactic elements” (Anderson 1986) that have evidentiality as their core meaning. Linguists committing to this view, then, tend to draw a sharp line between grammatical evidentiality and other linguistic means that languages employ to “describe different types of knowledge and of information source” (Aikhenvald 2004). According to this view, not all languages can be said to have evidential markers. A different stance is taken by scholars that prefer to insist on evidentiality rather being a notional category, such as Modality or Aspect. Encompassing a direct reference to notions such as source of information and evidence, the category of evidentiality is indeed brought closer to modality as a kind of “epistemic justification” (Boye 2012). Following this point of view, of course, evidentiality is independent from the grammaticalisation of evidentials, and should rather be considered as a linguistic universal. By answering the question “When do we know?”, the second part of the book addresses these important issues.

The different contributions gathered in this section investigate the acquisition of evidentiality (cf. Tamm et al. study on the acquisition of evidential interpretations in Estonian) and the extensions of evidential meanings in the diachronic development of grammatical markers. Two papers in particular address the latter issue by considering two typologically unrelated languages. Bettina Zeisler (“Evidence for the development of evidentiality as a grammatical category in the Tibetic languages”) compares the grammar of Classic Tibetan and Modern Tibetic languages, showing that, while the former lacks a fully developed evidential system, the coding of evidentiality seems to have gradually become grammaticalized in modern varieties. The case in point is the grammaticalisation of the evidential verb “hdug” in West Tibetan. Ziesler reconstructs the grammaticalisation path through which its original existential meaning, expressing a transitory state, has developed into an evidential, where the transitory notion has been exploited for the expression of doubt and inference, and has further specialised itself to apply to situations merely perceived, where the inference of a perceiver becomes essential in order to ground their assertion. While Ziegler could base her diachronic analysis on a well-documented corpus of written texts, spanning from Early Classical Tibetan to Early Modern Tibetan, Sonia Gipper, in her contribution, “From similarity to evidentiality”, takes the opposite path. Gipper starts from the synchronic use of the polyfunctional verbalizing suffix –shi in the Amazonian language Yukaré and reconstructs a possible diachronic path of semantic extension from an original derivational suffix expressing similarity. As in Modern Tibetan languages, the meaning of an evidential is thus the result of a process of semantic extension, which in Yukaré is however not fully accomplished, since the same suffix –shi still retains, in synchrony, a use as a comparative morpheme.

Finally, the issue of grammaticalisation is evoked also by Jeroen Vanderbiesen, who draws an analysis of the so-called reportive use of German modal auxiliary “sollen” in terms of evidentiality (“Reportive “sollen” in an exclusively functional view of evidentiality”). The auxiliary “sollen” in German has been described in the literature as having a non-primary evidential meaning, undergoing an “evidentiality strategy” by which a marker that does not encode evidential information as its intrinsic meaning may acquire a semantic extension that allows it to deal with evaluating information sources (Aikhenvald 2004). In the case of “sollen”, an analysis in terms of semantic extension should be supported by considerations about the status of modals in German, as it is well known that modal auxiliaries across languages may sit at various stages along a path of grammaticalisation into lexical verbs. On the theoretical side, Vanderbiesen argues against the “narrow” view of evidentiality expounded above and adopts a definition of evidentiality as a “functional-conceptual substance domain” (Boye and Harder 2009). Within this framework, he analyses sollen. in some of its uses, as a reportive evidential marker, which signals that the speaker backs her assertion with verbal testimony. He further notes that, since “sollen” is primarily used as a deontic modal in German, its evidential use squares with the tendency observed across European languages, where evidentiality is often marked through deontic modals.

Modal auxiliaries, however, are not the only grammatical devices exploited for expressing evidential meaning in the languages of Europe. Alda Mari’s analysis of the evidential interpretation of the future Tense in French (“The French future: evidentiality and incremental information”) tackles the issue of the modal contribution of future tenses. The debate around the indeterminacy of statements projected in the future dates back at least to Aristoteles. Without taking stance with respect to the issue of the theoretical interpretation of the future, and of the type of indeterminacy (metaphysical or epistemic) that future tenses may encode, Mari presents evidence supporting the claim that the French future contributes modality, and that “the specific type of modality that it contributes imposes that the context of the modal evaluation satisfy specific evidential constraints” (Mari, op.cit., p. 201). This type of modality, which Mari dubs “ratificational” or “verificational”, rests upon the evidence that the speaker has at the time of utterance, and has to be distinguished from the “conjectural” modality, which does not require an event of verification. The author is then able to propose a compositional analysis of the meaning of French future, whereby the Tense component contributes a temporal constraint, shifting the time of evaluation of the modal component forward with respect to utterance time. Therefore, the French future conveys that the speaker will use evidence at a time following the utterance time.

The final chapter, by Seppo Kittilä, Lotta Java and Erika Sandman, addresses a methodological question, namely the choice of data and their contribution to the understanding of the phenomenon under study (“What can different types of data teach us on evidentiality?”) The issue of the empirical base is of course a relevant one for both theoretical and descriptive linguistics, and even more so in the case of a phenomenon such as evidentiality, which often needs the setting of a rich context in order to be expressed and which takes a range of different (more or less grammatical) forms across languages. The consequence is that evidentiality can be studied from a variety of perspectives, which imply a variety of types of data, ranging from elicited examples, such as the ones that can be collected in fieldwork, to spontaneous written or oral corpora and questionnaires. In their contribution, the authors review the advantages and shortcomings of each type of data, and conclude that all of them are useful in order to reach a full understanding of evidentiality as a category, since they differ in their contribution and finally complement each other.


Evidence for Evidentiality is a welcome contribution because, with a wide range of descriptive, acquisitional and diachronic data, it feeds the theoretical discussion around the relatively young linguistic category of evidentiality, thereby contributing to its definition and understanding. While the focus of the book still lies in the discussion of empirical evidence for the grammatical category of evidentiality, the editors also succeeded in addressing a number of important theoretical issues, thereby contributing to the identification of the notional category underlying the grammaticalization of evidential markers. As such, this book may be useful for both typologists interested in the description of the grammatical categories of individual languages and semanticians attempting a subtle classification of the categories of meaning.


Aikhenvald, A. (2004) ‘Evidentiality’. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Anderson, L.B. (1986) ‘Evidentials, paths of change and mental maps: typologically regular asymmetries’. In W. Chafe and J. Nichols (eds) ‘Evidentiality: the linguistic coding of epistemology’ (273-312) New Jersey: Ablex

Boye, K. (2012) ‘Epistemic meaning: a crosslinguistic and functional-cognitive study’. Berlin/Boston: Mouton de Gruyter

Boye, K. and P. Harder (2009) ‘Evidentiality. Linguistic categories and grammaticalization’. Functions of Language 16(1), 9-43

Cornille, B. (2009) ‘Evidentiality and epistemic modality. On the close relationship between two different categories’. Functions of Language 16, 44-62

Plungian, V (2001) ‘The place of evidentiality within the universal grammatical space’. Journal of Pragmatics 33, 383-400


Marta Donazzan is associate professor of Linguistics at the English Department of the University of Nantes. Her main area of research is the formal analysis of natural language semantics at its interface with syntax and pragmatics.

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