The Compulsive Copyeditor

September 19, 2009

Witness Spot Run. [UPDATED AGAIN]

Filed under: grammar,other languages — amba12 @ 9:45 am

When I came across this sentence in a piece I’m working on —

There he [1]witnessed a reindeer, of the Ocean Harbor herd, steer a little too close to the rookery of a feisty juvenile king penguin .

— I tripped over it and fell, hard.

Since it is after 4 AM (yes, I’ve had some sleep already.  Yes, it was over the computer, sitting up), rather than compose a long post I’ll just let you see my footnote.

[1] EDITOR’S NOTE (CE):  You can say “saw him steer,” but can you say “witnessed him steer,” or must it be “witnessed him steering”? My ear rebels at the former. Usage is divided on the question, and authority is silent (probably because I don’t know how to formulate the question).  I did stumble on a fascinating linguistics paper [PDF; HTML] that suggests that the word “see” has been “grammaticalized,” not only in English but in other languages as well, and that this reflects the “evidential” systems of preliterate times. Does this mean that multisyllabic synonyms for “see” can also be “grammaticalized” by analogy? My ear is protesting “No.” Anyone else?

The linguistics paper, by a University of Arizona professor, is technical; it revolves around a word the meaning of which I do not know:  “deictic.”  (Pause, and what would once have been the riffle-rustle of dictionary pages, but now is the swift snick of keys.)

  • Main Entry: deic·tic
  • Pronunciation: \ˈdīk-tik also ˈdāk-\
  • Function: adjective
  • Etymology: Greek deiktikos able to show, from deiktos, verbal of deiknynai to show — more at diction
  • Date: 1876

: showing or pointing out directly <the words this, that, and those have a deictic function>

OK, it’s what I would call “indicative” if I didn’t know that has acquired another, technical meaning that I don’t know.

But the whole business of “evidential” systems built into the grammar of language is utterly fascinating, because it dates back to a very important preliterate distinction we have utterly  lost:  that between direct eyewitness testimony and hearsay.  Imagine trying to be a fact checker as a hunter-gatherer.  Your knowledge of what actually happened, as opposed to self-interested propaganda and rumor with an agenda (can we make like academics and call it “agendized”?), depended on your having been there to see it with your own eyes, or, wanting that, on your trust in the character of an informant.  The reliability of the information would diminish exponentially with your degrees of separation from the eyewitness.  I was enthralled to learn, more than thirty years ago, that in quite a few languages (I believe Hopi was one and linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf was my informant) that distinction is “grammaticalized.”  That is, the statement “I know” would be modified grammatically depending on whether you really knew because you’d witnessed an event, or had only heard.  Imagine so-I-heard (which a preliterate friend of ours, described below, always inserted with a cautionary emphasis, deictic finger raised) being built into the undercarriage of your utterances!  Language itself once insisted on a distinction that we preserve only in law.

I flashed on Benjamin Lee Whorf when I met Brooklyn George, a semi-illiterate Italian friend my husband made once when he was working the door in an after-hours club as a favor to another friend.  Georgie might have been a gangster of some note had he not been a gambling addict.  Or he might’ve been something else:  he had a straight brother who was a high school teacher.  While Georgie could barely write out a sandwich order — somewhere I still have a slip of paper with the words B O L G A N A and P R O Z L O N E painstakingly printed on it, that J and I marveled over — it soon became obvious to me that he was fearsomely bright, even wise.  (So why was his life so screwed up, you may ask?  Um, have you ever known a brilliant person who applied that firepower to the living of his or her own life?)  He was given to gnomic utterances that had the profundity of Zen koans.  This was the guy who once said to J, “When I first met you, I thought you were stupid.  Then after a while I realized that I was stupid.” (Trust me, I was there.  I heard it myself.)

Georgie talked different from a literate person, and one of the biggest differences that got my attention was that he was always meticulous about distinguishing what he actually knew personally from what he’d only heard.  We literates and postliterates assume we “know” stuff we’ve read in the newspaper or seen on a screen!  When and why did we lose that visceral skepticism about hearsay?  When I saw the connection to Whorf and the grammar of Hopi, I realized what an amazing window Brooklyn Georgie opened into the way everyone lived and thought a few thousand years ago.

. . . OK, I just took off in a powerful rocket aircraft headed for orbit, rising over an incredible panorama of New York harbor predawn.  I forgot to fasten my seat belt, and as I reached uo to pull it down the G forces . . . woke me up to discover that my head was drooping sideways and my neck hurt.  It’s time to get horizontal.

UPDATE: Rereading this, I flashed on a line of poetry:  “I was the man, I saw it, I was there!”  Where does that come from?  Anybody?   Beat poetry, I think.  Google knoweth it not, which may mean I have one word wrong.  But in the process of searching for it, Googling the words “I saw it, I was there,” I discovered the power that direct witness still has for us.  Look.

UPDATE II:  Got it.  It’s Whitman, from one of the greatest portraits ever drawn of what true leadership is.  And it’s even more intimate than eyewitness:

I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times;
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless
wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm;
How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch,
and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalk’d in large letters, on a board,
Be of good cheer, we will not desert you:
How he follow’d with them, and tack’d with them –
and would not give it up;
How he saved the drifting company at last:
How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when
boated from the side of their prepared graves;
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted
sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men:
All this I swallow – it tastes good – I like it
well – it becomes mine;
I am the man – I suffer’d – I was there.


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