Evidentiality in language and history

So there I was, in the kitchen, making blini and listening to the Lingthusiasm podcast about evidentiality *.

The presenters were having a lot of fun describing a language where saying the statement ‘Dom was at Barnhard Castle during lockdown’ necessitates you to use a grammatical form that shows where the evidence for this is coming from. Is it something you saw yourself, that everyone knows is true, that you heard about or that you inferred? You cannot make the statement without embedding the source of your information.

Which is interesting.

However, the bit that I had to stop and make a few notes about for this post (sorry about the smell of burnt pancakes which then wafted round the flat, family) was when they said that children initially get the markers wrong. Not because they are lying** but because they don’t understand the nature of evidence.

Children, in fact, confuse the relationship between different types of evidence and certainty.

This reminded me of three things things. 1) Piaget, 2) history as a form of knowledge and 3) something I’ll save for another post.

Some languages have evidentiality hardwired into the language. What is the connection between this and children learning how evidence works in history?
Image by Thomas H. from Pixabay

Jean Piaget was a psychologist who said that screw education, children will progress in their understanding of concepts as their brains mature in clear and predicable ways (I oversimplify, naturally).

This is a lovely video showing this sort of idea. Yes, yes, yes, I know the methodology is a bit iffy. It’s not meant to be proof. It’s an illustration.

All sorts of disciplines seem to have hared after this thought by trying to track the stages that children go though in grasping the concepts involved. And in the case of second language learning, also things like how adults progress in picking up grammar (mostly).

In English, for example, this sort of thinking is part of the Stephen Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis, which attempts to explain why third person s (that’s ‘she wantS a biscuit’ to the terminology deficient) is so damn resistant to teaching.

Because, the idea goes, it is simply late acquired.

Another example are articles, ‘a/an’ vs ‘the’. It looks as though** ‘the’ is earlier to get integrated. Probably because ‘the’ actually is more meaningful (you and I both know which one) compared to ‘a/an’. Which at best often just means one. Or any. Swallowing it when we pronounce it doesn’t help either.

As a teaching tool, this sort of theory has difficulty.

Specifically, in the case of the English language, because no one has ever managed to map the whole of English grammar neatly into the schema and thus work out the optimal order in which to introduce all of its elements in a real life course.

But also more generally because really? Teaching has no effect? Are you sure?

Which brings us to Lev Vygotsky, another psychologist, who says that you can scaffold kids into performing beyond their current capabilities. I have a video for that too.


The history teaching profession has also had a go at sequencing acquisition of its knowledge****. And no, we are NOT talking here about whether you know one date, seven dates or twenty seven. That’s just data.

Take children’s understanding of evidence, for example.

Early on, they deal with the problem that there are conflicting accounts of what happened by adding up how many are for one version of events and how many are for the other version. Whichever version has the most support, must be the true version.

A slightly more sophisticated idea would be to look at who the narrators are and try to filter their stories though the likely biases, prejudices and the likelihood that they might actually know whereof they spoke.

What history teachers are trying to move students towards, however, is understanding that you need to look deeper even than that, until students realise that you can infer information from sources which are, on the surface, not answering the question you are trying to figure out. But which are, as a result, actually much more reliable.

The Bible, for example, is a rather unreliable source (to a historian) of who Jesus actually was and what he actually did.

It is an excellent source of information, however, about how the Roman empire worked outside of Europe. If you know where to look.


It looks to me that you could map children’s ability to use the language of evidentiality quite successfully onto the research done into children’s understanding of the nature of historical evidence.

And that’s REALLY interesting, because if you subscribe to the idea that language shapes thought as well as vice versa, it’s just possible that being forced to consider your source of evidence before every utterance might make you, eventually, better at evaluating it.

The thing is that although you can tag this or that type of understanding as being of a higher order than another, and although cognitive maturity is one way you can level up, the problem with Paiget is that this levelling up is not a certainty, not necessarily automatic.

And the problem with Vygotsky is that teaching is not always successful.

Which is why, of course, news outlets insisting on balance is dangerous. One argument for, one argument against, oh they must be equal there is no true way to tell who is correct is not and understanding humans necessarily automatically age out of.

And you thought this post had no connection to online communication.


*Episode 32: You heard about it but I was there – Evidentiality

**It is possible to lie, by the way, using evidentiality encoded languages. You just deliberately use the ‘wrong’ grammar form.

***I can’t remember at all where I read this. Note to self. Always note down where you got random facts from now on in case you want them for the blog.

**** How Students Learn: History in the Classroom M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds; National Research Council, National Academies Press; Washington DC; 2005