It seems there are differences in expressing knowledge (I’ve heard)

A little while ago, on April 12, to be precise, I stopped in at the convenience store by the station to get a copy of The Japan News before taking the train to my university, but the racks were mostly empty except for sports newspapers. I take the train in the early morning, and once in a while the newspapers haven’t arrived, usually due to very bad weather. However, sometimes the newspapers have arrived, and the convenience store clerk just hasn’t had a chance to put them out. So I asked the clerk if the newspaper delivery had been delayed. He replied, “Kyukanbi mitai desu” (It seems it’s a newspaper holiday).

Of course! I had known it was a newspaper holiday because the newspaper always adds a little box on the front page the previous day announcing it as well as listing the TV program schedule for the following day. I nodded to the clerk and headed toward the ticket wicket, but communication-curious as always, I pondered the use of “mitai” (seems).

I understood the clerk was being polite, perhaps trying to avoid making me feel embarrassed for not only forgetting the newspaper holiday, but additionally not even recalling it when I saw the racks. Yet at the same time, “seems” suggested to me that he was basing his conclusion on the simple non-arrival of the newspaper, when surely he, like virtually all newspaper readers in Japan, had to have been aware it was a newspaper holiday, not to mention his job undoubtedly requiring such knowledge.

It appeared to me that it was not an issue of perception but rather a matter of fact. I felt that in English it might even sound slightly sarcastic to add the “seems” instead of just saying “Today’s a newspaper holiday!”, which would surely be the default. If I commented on someone buying chocolate on Valentine’s Day, would my listener say, “It seems that it’s Valentine’s Day”?

About 10 years ago I wrote an article for this column in which I referred to a paper written by the applied linguist Kazutoh Ishida, titled “How can you be so certain? The use of hearsay evidentials by English-speaking learners of Japanese.” I kind of get it, and yet it still mystifies upon occasion. Sometimes my question is, how can you be so uncertain?

I decided to dig a little, and I am happy to report that there are researchers who have contemplated a great many facets of “mitai” and other evidentials. Elin McCready, a language philosopher, has investigated the issue of whether the use of “mitai” is based on belief or knowledge. McCready considers the example of waking up in the morning and finding the street outside is wet. Many Japanese people would say, “The street is wet. It seems that it rained last night,” using “mitai.”

But when McCready suggests to them this sequence: “The street is wet. [But you may have a brain tumor that causes all streets to look wet, even though they are not. You cannot be sure if the street is truly wet or not.] It seems that it rained last night,” most of McCready’s informants became unwilling to use “mitai.” Once the speakers’ ability to evaluate street wetness is disputed, they become even more disinclined to venture a comment on the probable cause with “mitai,” indicating that it is related to knowledge and not belief.

Apparently, pushing Japanese speakers to recognize the limits of their certainty leads them to be averse even to statements that include reference to the fact that their assumptions are based on circumstantial evidence.

The Japanese language additionally allows the use of multiple evidentials, which may appear in sentences related to second- or third-hand information. Computational linguist Jackie Cheung and four other researchers made a study of these, creating eight sentences using “taberu” (eat) followed by two evidentials, and asked 10 Japanese informants which seemed grammatically correct and which they themselves might use:

1) “Taberu mitai rashii” (It seems apparently [he/she] will eat);

2) “Taberu mitai mitai” (It seems it seems [he/she] will eat);

3) “Taberu mitai da so da” (It seems [I] heard [he/she] will eat;

4) “Taberu rashii mitai” (Apparently it seems [he/she] will eat;

5) “Taberu mitai da yo da” (It seems that it appears [he/she] will eat);

6) “Taberu rashii so da” (Apparently, [he/she] will eat, I heard);

7) “Taberu so da rashii” (I heard apparently [he/she] will eat);

8) “Taberu rashii yo da” (Apparently it appears that [he/she]will eat).

Cheung and his colleagues found that all the informants rejected the use of 2) (mitai-mitai) and 7) (so da-rashii). The researchers further noted differences depending on the age of the respondent. All of the informants deemed 3) (mitai da-so da) and 6) (rashii-so da) acceptable, but those in their 20s and those over 60 said they personally would not use them. Speakers in their 30s to 50s said they would actually use them as well as 4) (rashii-mitai); 5) (mitai da-yo da); and 8) (rashii-yo da). Only one middle-aged speaker found 1) (mitai-rashii) possible.

The researchers then embedded the double evidential sentences in six scenarios, excluding scenarios for the rejected 2) and 7), and asked the informants to choose the sentence or create a sentence that better fit the situation. When the participants made their own sentences, they typically created a sentence with just one evidential, but at least four people chose the double evidential sentence in each scenario. In four out of the six scenarios, a majority opted for the evidential combination.

Eight out of the 10 speakers agreed with the following scenario, the highest agreement among all: Girl C is looking for Girl A, who suddenly disappeared at lunchtime. She sees Boy B, who tells her, “It seems she’s going to eat now.” Girl C and Boy D meet in the hallway and see Girl A going into the cafeteria. She tells him, “It seems Girl A is going to eat now, I heard” (mitai da so da).

Reading the scenario and the ensuing statement, I felt as if my own way of leaping to assumptions and not demonstrating, or even noticing, that my assertions were based on others’ testimony made me a Dr. Watson in a country of full of people with the perspicacity of Sherlock Holmes. It seems that I have a lot to learn yet.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.