Which languages have critical reasoning as a characteristic?
August 27, 2010 9:48 PM   Subscribe

What are some languages, or who are some writers, that are epistemologically self-aware?

The Matses are mentioned in this post as obliging "... their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting." Joe Lisboa mentions a skeptic writer in that thread here.

Are there any other examples of languages or people that have critical reasoning built into the way they use language?

Obviously philosophy or most of academia comes to mind, but I'm wondering if there are other areas outside of it. Also, I'm aware of doxastic and epistemic logics, which seems to be more explicit formalized versions of what I'm looking for. Thanks.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by tomtheblackbear at 9:56 PM on August 27, 2010

Best answer: E-Prime might interest you.
posted by No-sword at 9:57 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Evidentiality (as in Matses) is a neat linguistic feature, but I don't think too much should be made of it. As Deutscher put it, it's just a matter of what you're obliged to say rather than what you can say.

Another completely exotic language with a form of evidentiality: French. You can use the past conditional to indicate that you're reporting alleged facts-- it's common in journalism. Nice, but it's not like it makes French people better thinkers or something.
posted by zompist at 10:03 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Robert Heinlein discussed the subject a bit.
posted by clorox at 11:05 PM on August 27, 2010

posted by amyms at 11:15 PM on August 27, 2010

Best answer: Turkish also has evidentiality: Londra'ya gitti, "He/she went to London [and I saw it with my own eyes]"; Londra'ya gitmiĊŸ, "He/she went to London [and I read about it in the paper/heard about it from her mum]"; this can be used with any tense, and Turkish has a lot of tenses. But I also think you could make too much of this.

(I believe, incidentally, that Esperanto's grammar was based on Turkish; could explain amyms's comment...)
posted by lapsangsouchong at 11:42 PM on August 27, 2010

Best answer: The Wikipedia article on evidentiality has a list of languages that do this.

Like zompist said, it's a matter of what you're obliged to say. In English, verbs are always marked for tense. You can say something in present tense, future tense, past tense or past perfect, but there's no such thing as a verb not being in one tense or another. In a lot of languages this kind of marking is optional. In languages with obligatory marking for evidentiality, any statement has to be in a form indicating that you're saying it based on direct observation, hearsay or inference (or whatever distinctions the language makes). It can't not be in one of those forms, the same way English verbs can't not be in a tense.

However, people who speak languages without obligatory tense marking do understand time relations, and do have ways of indicating them when it's not clear from context. English speakers do understand the difference between hearsay, inference and observation, and we can indicate these distinctions by saying things like "I think," "apparently," "X must have" or "might have happened."
posted by nangar at 12:04 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's multiple verbs meaning "to know" in Khmer (my partial understanding and butchered transliterations follow) -

to know a fact (eg from reading) is dung, to know something because you've heard it is yul, to know how to do something or have knowledge based on practice is cheh.

To be knowledgeable is to be chehdung.
posted by Ahab at 12:16 AM on August 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far. I had no idea about the area of evidentiality, which was what I was hinting at, but didn't know a word existed for it. Thanks again.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 1:27 AM on August 28, 2010

Best answer: They're mentioned in the list nangar links, but anyway I did a course in Tibetan way back when which I've sadly mostly forgotten now but do remember being struck by the evidentials in that language which are apparently a feature of Tibeto-Burman languages; to give an example, the abstract to this article describes evidential features of one Kham dialect: "Rgyalthang Tibetan shows a system of four-way evidentiality contrasts, namely visual, non-visual, reported and quotative." This article looks at how such a language impacts cognitive development but the full text is behind a paywall.
posted by Abiezer at 6:18 AM on August 28, 2010

Best answer: Quick clarification, English verbs are only marked for two tenses, past or present (English is a 2-tense system). All other verb forms are actually aspects (ex. '-ing' forms are aspectual, marking progression, not time/tense). Evidentials exist in English, they're just not grammatical, they're lexical. So when we want to convey our position relative to the information, we may use words like 'overheard', 'told', 'found', 'learned', 'saw', 'witnessed', etc. Manner and pragmatics get encoded in these words too, which can be interpreted as epistemological self-awareness. Especially when choices between two semantically similar words are made, indicating awareness of the subtle differences between the two, and opting for the one that best describes our mental and emotional stance towards the language content. All languages use deixis and anaphora of some sort too. That is self-awareness (and other-awareness, often relative to the self).

What the article you reference doesn't point out (and why the article drives me sorta nuts) is that languages all have ways to referring to concepts like past, self, cardinal direction, specific color shades, spatial relationships, evidentiality...but we're all expected to go "Whoooooaaaaaa..." when a language is found that encodes this information grammatically rather than lexically or otherwise. It's interesting, but it's just different way of organizing the same 'ole meaning bits.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:41 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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