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Evidentiality in Innu and Naskapi

 Evidentials: The Grammar of Information Source

As I’ve mentioned, this summer I’m teaching a class at the Canada Institute of Linguistics called “syntax and semantics.” It’s basically a course about the grammatical patterns in the world’s languages and the kinds of meanings they convey. One of the most fun parts for me is when I can draw from things I am learning about Naskapi, Innu or Ojibwe as we prepare to go up north.

In class we recently looked at a type of grammatical marking called “evidentials”. Evidentials show where the speaker got their information from. For example, if you are fluent in Tariana and you want to say “Jose is playing soccer,” you will need to choose a different form of the verb depending on whether:

  1. you saw Jose playing soccer

  2. someone else told you Jose is playing soccer

  3. you can hear Jose playing soccer but cannot see him (eg. he’s on the other side of a wall)

  4. you figured out he’s playing soccer from visual evidence (eg. Jose’s cleats and the soccer ball are missing)

  5. you figured out he’s playing soccer from general knowledge (eg. you know Jose plays soccer every Saturday afternoon, and it’s Saturday afternoon)

The grammar of Tariana actually requires you include this information in every sentence for it to be grammatical. Talk about a challenge for Bible translation. Before you can even begin to translate anything you would need to figure out how the writer (or a person in a biblical narrative) got their information.

Evidentiality in Algonquian Languages

In Innu, a First Nations language spoken in Labrador, verbs have a special form called the “indirect mode,” that seems to convey evidential information. The indirect mode is used when the speaker is talking about:

  1. events that occurred in a different place from the speaker (including things seen on tv or in a picture, or (more traditionally) things seen in a vision)

  2. events the speaker could hear but not see (eg. events that occurred in the dark or in a heavy snow storm)

  3. events that speaker heard from someone else (ie. did not directly witness)

  4. events the speaker could barely see happen in the distance

Based on these contexts, Innu verbs seem to distinguish between things the speaker actually saw happen (in real life), versus things they didn’t see happen. Naskapi also has an “indirect mode” which seems do something similar (though I haven’t learned all the details about Naskapi yet):

(1)   Naskapi

a. nipaaw             ‘he/she is asleep’ (speaker saw in real life)

b. nipaatik             ‘he/she is asleep’ (speaker saw in a picture or video)

Learning Naskapi will involve figuring out how to use these verb forms appropriately in everyday settings and seeing how they affect the translation process. Patterns like these are what will make Naskapi so interesting (and challenging) to learn. Pray for us:)

  1. Tariana data from Aikhenvald, Alexandra. 2004. Evidentiality. Oxford: OUP. pp.2-3

  2. Innu data from Drapeau, Lynn. 2014. Grammaire de la langue Innue. Quebec: Presses de l’Universite du Quebec. p.177

  3. Naskapi data from Jancewicz, Bill. (prepub). Naskapi Spoken Here. p.56

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