How do you know I’m telling the truth?

Deep in the Amazon rain forest, they do a really marvelous thing.

Have I seen it for myself? Well, no. Did I hear it from an eyewitness? No again. Truth to tell, I read about it on the internet.

Aerial view of Papuri River

The Papuri River in South America (photo: Andre Baertschi)

I need to back up and start from the beginning.

Dave Thomas, in a recent article titled The Revolution Will Have Structured Content, describes how the language of a culture will reflect whatever values the culture finds most important.

Thus, for example, “if we require Mr., which says nothing about marital status, before a man’s name but either Miss or Mrs. before a woman’s name, we are saying that the most important thing to know about that woman is her marital status.” And that’s why, over the last half-century, the use of Ms. has become prevalent.

A grammar based on evidence

Now, Thomas asks, what if a culture placed a high value on truth? Would its language evolve a grammar that would help a listener to evaluate the veracity of a given statement?

In fact, there are such languages. And there’s a name for that kind of grammar: evidentiality.

Thomas cites the language of the Tuyuca, a small indigenous group living near the Papuri River along the Brazil-Colombia border. In the Tuyuca language, Thomas says,

There are different verb tenses for “I saw it” versus “I heard it” versus “Someone else told me” versus “I see evidence for it” versus “It is reasonable to assume so” versus “I saw it on the internet” (well, that last one might be a paraphrase).

Yes. Thomas made up the last one. But all of the others are real.

When I first read about the Tuyuca language, my mind started racing.

Just think: in a language where evidentiality is part of the grammar, every speaker is obligated to describe how they came to know something.

Every listener can hear that description and use it to form judgments.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I started to envy the Tuyuca, even though I didn’t know anything else about them.

But as my mind went on racing, it started carrying me to unexpected places. What happens, I wondered, when a speaker is dishonest? In Tuyuca society, surely there must be instances where, for example, someone pretends to be an eyewitness when in fact they only heard something secondhand.

When that happens, it seems like it would be incredibly easy for a listener to be misled — having assumed, in good faith, that the speaker was using the language appropriately.

Or is dishonesty so taboo that no one ever even thinks about fibbing? Does the language, having been shaped by the taboo, now serve to reinforce the taboo?

I don’t know enough about the Tuyuca culture to venture a guess.

But I know my culture. And I know that, yeah, my culture has dishonest speakers.

What if our language had a mechanism for reining in the dishonesty? Would it make us, as a culture, more honest? I’m skeptical that it would. And, anyway, it doesn’t matter. Our culture has already evolved a language that (per Thomas) reflects our core values.

We don’t need grammar to make us honest

Yet all is not lost. In our culture, it turns out, honest speakers already include evidentiality in their statements — even if it’s not baked into the grammar of the language. Journalists, for example, are careful to state whether their stories are based on eyewitness accounts or on secondhand reports.

In this article, I’ve told you where my information came from. Rather than conjecturing about the ways of the Tuyuca — or simply making things up — I’ve told you when I don’t know.

So our culture provides tools for honest speakers. Similarly, good listeners know how to interpret what they read and hear. They can ask questions as needed, and they can apply the tools of critical thinking to evaluate what they’re being told.

In Thomas’ words, “The way we structure content says a lot about the values we share.” If, as speakers and writers, we’re committed to honesty, we’ll give our hearers and our readers enough evidence to see for themselves.

If we’re not committed to honesty, we won’t do that. But it’s not because we can’t. It’s not because our language doesn’t give us the means to do it.

I’d love to hear what you think.

5 thoughts on “How do you know I’m telling the truth?

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mike. And, citing another literary classic, in Galaxy Quest the Thermians don’t understand the concept of fiction. Oddly, communication becomes more of a challenge when your interlocutor is that trusting.

  1. Christoph

    Hi Larry,

    thank you, this is an interesting post again!
    We should not forget that many more common languages have something called “indirect speech” to indicate that you cite something or someone. At least I have been bothered a lot with this by my school teachers back then.
    However, I don’t read indirect speech very often. So I definitely follow your argument that it’s a cultural thing and not a mere technical shortcoming of our grammar.

  2. Pingback: How do you know I’m telling the truth? – Technical Writing World

  3. Allison

    I was curious to know more about the comparison between German and English. Although, the point you made about the additional language was interesting, I think you could have brought the two together. I studied German for 7 years. If you want to continue research, I recommend looking up the subjunctive two verb tense.


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