Mathias Schenner (ZAS, Berlin)


Structures for Interpreting Evidentials

One of the recipes for the success of formal semantics is the use of well-understood algebraic structures for modeling the meaning of natural language expressions. For instance, the introduction of relational structures in modal logic revolutionized our scientific understanding of modality and paved the way for elaborate analyses of modal expressions in natural language (Kratzer 1991).

In this talk, I want to discuss two kinds of structures for interpreting evidentials. They are linked to two commonly acknowledged semantic/pragmatic effects of evidentials: (a) the introduction of an evidential condition at some level of meaning, conveying that a certain agent (typically the speaker) has evidence of a certain type in a certain situation for a certain proposition; (b) their ability to affect the degree of the speaker’s commitment to the propositional argument of the evidential.

Structures for modeling the evidential condition. Many formal accounts of evidentials, starting with Izvorski (1997), make use of the established possible worlds machinery developed for modal notions and add some evidential flavor to it, typically by coloring modal bases and ordering sources appropriately in an overall Kratzerian approach. In fact, one twist of the modality/evidentiality demarcation discussion is precisely the question whether the exact formal tools developed for the analysis of modal expressions can be used to handle evidential expressions as well. However, it is important to note that most of these accounts do not even attempt to model the evidential condition itself in structural terms. We can distinguish two kinds of approach to modeling the evidential condition: non-reductionist (or descriptive) approaches and reductionist (or structural) approaches. Non-reductionist approaches directly add evidential notions like having direct evidence or having indirect evidence (or more elaborate, but still descriptive versions thereof) to the meta-language. Most current formal accounts of evidentials are of this type, e.g. Izvorski (1997), Faller (2002), Matthewson, Davis, and Rullmann (2008), Murray (2010) and many others. Reductionist approaches, on the other hand, try to model evidential notions by structural relations and thus avoid the use of having evidence as a predicate in the metalanguage. The basic idea, going back to Jakobson (1971) and recently taken up as a general approach by Speas (2010) and for specific analyses by Chung (2007), Koev (2011) and others, is that evidentials express relations between three types of events: the speech event (or discourse situation), the narrated event (or evaluated situation) and the narrated speech event (or reference situation). One of the interesting empirical arguments for the relevance of the reference situation is the double tense construction in Matses discussed by Fleck (2007). However, despite the conceptual attractiveness of reductionist accounts, it should not be overlooked that they still rely on a pre-theoretic understanding of the evidential condition that acts a filter for determining the set of admissible “narrated speech events” or reference situations. (In a similar way, relational structures cannot explain away the notion of modality, but rely on the theoretical primitive of a possible world.)

The upshot is that (a) theories should be clear about where primitive notions of the evidential condition enter the system and (b) all theories that aim at a satisfactory account of evidential expressions need to elaborate on the evidential condition they assume. There are surprisingly few proposals that address the latter issue in detail, notable exceptions being McCready (2011) and, for mirativity, Peterson (2012). Building on related arguments, I will propose an inference-based model for the evidential condition hypothesized in Schenner (2010).

Structures for modeling evidentials in context. There are at least two tasks that a theory of the discourse effects of evidentials needs to accomplish: First, it needs to introduce the evidential condition at the right level of meaning. Second, it needs to provide a means to modulate the degree of the speaker’s commitment to the propositional argument of the evidential. In the past few years, several attractive formal discourse theories have been proposed that are capable of capturing many of the characteristic features of evidentials; more recently, for example, Murray (2010) and AnderBois, Brasoveanu, and Henderson (2010). One core idea of these approaches is that there are at least two ways to update the common ground: (a) proposed (negotiable) updates for at-issue content, (b) imposed (non-negotiable) updates for appositive content (like the evidential condition).

However, there are two potential issues with this kind of approach. First, a conceptual concern is the introduction of a powerful mechanism of uncontrolled “brute-force” common ground update that works just like automated presupposition accommodation but without the plausibility restrictions that the latter is subject to. However, this issue could be addressed by specifying a protocol for admissible discourse moves that takes into account different kinds of common ground updates. Second, an empirical concern is the treatment of embedded evidentials that give rise to a variety of complex issues that are not always easy to handle in primarily discourse-level approaches. In addressing these issues, I will sketch an alternative approach based on a model-theoretic account of speech acts (Krifka 2012) and a small structured set of discourse relations, loosely inspired by SDRT (Asher and Lascarides 2003).


[1] AnderBois, Scott, Adrian Brasoveanu, and Robert Henderson (2010). “Crossing the appositive / at-issue meaning boundary”. In: Proceedings of SALT 20. Ed. by Nan Li and David Lutz. eLanguage, pp. 328–346.

[2] Asher, Nicholas and Alex Lascarides (2003). Logics of Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Chung, Kyung-Sook (2007). “Spatial deictic tense and evidentials in Korean”. In: Natural Language Semantics 15, pp. 187–219.

[4] Faller, Martina (2002). “Semantics and Pragmatics of Evidentials in Cuzco Quechua”. PhD thesis. Stanford University.

[5] Fleck, David W. (2007). “Evidentiality and Double Tenses in Matses”. In: Language 83.3, pp. 589–614.

[6] Izvorski, Roumyana (1997). “The Present Perfect as an Epistemic Modal”. In: SALT 7, pp. 222–239.

[7] Jakobson, Roman (1971). “Shifters, Verbal Categories, and the Russian Verb”. In: Selected Writings Vol. 2. Ed. by Roman Jakobson. Reprint, originally published in 1957. The Hague: Mouton,
pp. 131–147.

[8] Koev, Todor (2011). “Evidentiality and temporal distance learning”. In: Proceedings of SALT 21. Ed. by
Neil Ashton, Anca Chereches, and David Lutz. eLanguage, pp. 115–134.

[9] Kratzer, Angelika (1991). “Modality”. In: Semantik: Ein internationales Handbuch der zeitgenössischen Forschung (HSK 6). Ed. by Arnim von Stechow and Dieter Wunderlich. Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 639–650.

[10] Krifka, Manfred (2012). Embedding speech acts. Ms. To be published in: Tom Roeper and Peggy Speas (Eds.): Recursion in Language and Cognition. url: (visited on 05/03/2012).

[11] Matthewson, Lisa, Henry Davis, and Hotze Rullmann (2008). “Evidentials as epistemic modals: Evidence from St’át’imcets”. In: Linguistic Variation Yearbook 2007. Ed. by Jeroen Van Craenenbroeck. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 201–254.

[12] McCready, Eric (2011). What is Evidence in Natural Language? Unpublished Ms.
url: (visited on 05/03/2012).

[13] Murray, Sarah E. (2010). “Evidentiality and the structure of speech acts”. PhD thesis. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University.

[14] Peterson, Tyler (2012). Evidentiality and the Unprepared Mind. Ms. url: (visited on 05/03/2012).

[15] Schenner, Mathias (2010). “Evidentials in Complex Sentences: Foundational Issues and Data from Turkish and German”. In: Evidence from Evidentials. Ed. by Tyler Peterson and Uli Sauerland. The University of British Columbia Working Papers in Linguistics 28. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, pp. 183–220.

[16] Speas, Peggy (2010). Evidentials as Generalized Functional Heads. Ms., to appear in: Anna Maria Di Sciullo (Ed.): Interface Legibility at the Edge, Oxford University Press. url: (visited on 05/03/2012).

Last Modified: 07-05-2012