Posted by: CJ | August 30, 2010

Wish I may, wish I might…

I would love it–love it like Dick Cheney loves oil subsidies-if English had this property:

In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study.

As a friend of mine said, “They must be excellent lawyers and horrible defense witnesses.” Which pretty much sums up my baseline thought patterns. So I’m partial everyone speaking my native tongue.

The above comes from an NYT story on language and cognition. (H/T Scott Sumner)



  1. If only you were joking….such devotion to utter truthfulness was one of the premises of the movie The Invention of Lying, which is possibly the worst (as in saddest, causing breakdowns-I’ll never watch it again) movie ever made.

    • I didn’t mean this to be about truthfulness, exactly. You could still lie with this construct, you’d just have to also explicitly lie about how you know something instead of just implicitly suggest.

      I’m more interested in it as a way of forcing people to keep track of why they believe they know something. Handy for those times you’re in arguments and are unsure just where people got their bizarre point of view. It seems like it’d be helpful if the language itself made it easier to point out they know it, for example, only because Glenn Beck said so. Not because of any other source, unless they’re claiming divine inspiration.

  2. This would make life infinitely more interesting.

    • One would hope. If nothing else, it makes it easier for people who make their business to know everything have an easier time throwing their intellectual weight around in conversation.

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