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Evidentiality and Perception Verbs in English and German


Richard Jason Whitt

Evidentiality, the linguistic encoding of a speaker’s or writer’s evidence for an asserted proposition, has begun to receive serious attention from linguists only in the last quarter century. Much of this attention has focused on languages that encode evidentiality in the grammar, while much less interest has been shown in languages that express evidentiality through means other than inflectional morphology. In English and German, for instance, the verbs of perception – those verbs denoting sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste – are prime carriers of evidential meaning. This study surveys the most prominent of the perception verbs in English and German across all five sensory modalities and accounts for the range of evidential meanings by examining the general polysemy found among perception verbs, as well as the specific complementation patterns in which these verbs occur.


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Introduction 1


Introduction Nihil est in intellectu quin prius fuerit in sensu.1 — Charles Sanders Peirce Before Boas (1938) brought the linguistic encoding of speaker evidence to the limelight, the phenomenon of evidentiality was little known to, or at least unaddressed by, the linguistics community. After all, no language of Western Europe encodes source of information, whether that be sight, sound, hearsay, inference, etc. in the verbal morphology. The past two decades have witnessed a remarkable surge in scholarship on evidential- ity, almost all of which focuses on non-Western languages. However, the mere fact that most Western languages do not grammatically encode evi- dentiality does not mean that they are incapable of signifying evidentiality elsewhere (i.e. in the lexicon). That is, there are numerous lexical means in which speakers of languages such as English and German may indicate the source of the propositions they utter. It should come as no surprise, then, that perception verbs – verbs denoting sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – are one of the primary lexical means speakers of English and German have at their disposal to convey the evidence for what they say.2 After all, as the above epigraph from the semiotician Charles Peirce implies, our epistemology is shaped by our perceptions. And Aikhenvald (2004: 271ff.) notes that perception 1 ‘Nothing is in the intellect which was not previously in the senses.’ In C. S. Peirce, Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2 (1893–1913), ed. Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 226. 2 I do not...

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