In English, we don’t express evidentiality with a special set of suffixes used only for that purpose but instead use words that otherwise can mean other things. “Apparently, they sell them in the summer, too,” you say about something you’ve heard around. If you believe you hear the pizza delivery person arriving, you say “That must be the pizza.” When you couch something as an opinion, you say “I think it’s a matter of sincerity” or, these days, “I feel like it’s a matter of sincerity.”
On the old radio and TV show “Fibber McGee and Molly,” Fibber was regularly bedeviled by a little girl, Teeny, who would come by and engage him in rambling conversations. Her catchphrase was “I betcha,” an evidential expression signaling awareness that something might be untrue but that one is nonetheless confident it is true — enough to be willing to place a bet on it. In one 1939 episode Fibber says, “Teeny? Well … that’s a cute name,” and she answers, “Sure it is, I betcha” — even if someone out there thinks her name isn’t cute, she’s pretty sure it is.
The expression “I reckon” serves a similar purpose. Chaucer used the phrase “I gesse,” or “I guess,” in his work, with the same basic meaning as for us today. If “I reckon” is warm and quaint and Chaucer’s “I guess” is literary and noble, then we ought to wonder why “I feel like” is taken as a marker of rhetorical weakness.
When people preface their thoughts with “I feel like,” they’re indicating that the source of what they’re about to say is reasoned but not categorical. Tacitly, they’re leaving an opening for others to disagree, but this is less cowering than gracious. The heart of human linguistic communication is pointing out something all are familiar with and then indicating something novel or useful or unexpected about it. This is what language evolved for, not private rumination or exploratory dialogues, which came later and piggybacked on the basic function of enlightening others — something Thom Scott-Phillips gets to the heart of in “Speaking Our Minds” and Charles Taylor also explores in “The Language Animal.”
But languages go further than this. Because all of them are vehicles of nuance, all of them allow speakers to indicate how sure they are of what they are communicating in various ways. “That must be the pizza,” one surmises, because it was ordered a half-hour ago. “I feel like the pizza won’t get here in time,” you say, although you can’t know for sure and are open to someone else’s assessment.
Of course, there are gradations of confidence: “I think” indicates a touch more certainty than “I feel like,” while “I believe” indicates more certainty than “I think.” This indicates in us attention to degree and detail; an anthropologist might document these phrases as neatly allowing speakers to register three degrees of qualified certainty. So if Tuyuca speakers have a suffix to indicate that they suppose, perfectly confident people say “I reckon” and no one would accuse Middle English speakers of self-doubt for saying “I guess,” then I feel like we can say English speakers are doing just fine today.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”