Verbs in Tibetan: Using Evidential Helping Verbs

What are ‘evidentials’?

If you speak or study a language like English, Spanish, or German (Indo-European languages), you are probably used to ‘conjugating’ verbs based on person and tense: I play, but she plays, and yesterday, I played. The verb changes according to information about who did what, and when. (You may have even memorized tables of first, second, and third person verb forms in past, present, and future tenses!).

Tibetan uses helping verb constructions called ‘evidentials’ to communicate this kind of information. However, in contrast to strict grammars, where verb use is fixed based on the relationship between items within the information itself, Tibetan verbs are flexible, and depend upon the the relationship between the speaker and the information. So rather than strict ‘person’ and ‘tense’, Tibetan communicates two important aspects that are similar, but slightly different:

  1. How near or far something is from our personal experience
  2. How immediate or permanent something is from our personal experience

How near or far something is from our personal experience:

How immediate or permanent something is from our personal experience:

For more details and examples, read more here, under Part 2.

Evidentials for A0 level

What are the evidentials, specifically, that we learn how to use at what level?

In the beginning reader, we are introduced to:

  • ཡིན / རེད are general-use ‘to be’ verbs, as well as common evidentials for conveying personal and impersonal information (ཡིན་ is ‘near’ while རེད་ is ‘far’):

    • These can be used as the main verb to talk about things that are or aren’t (things that are relatively ‘permanent’):
      – ང་ སློབ་ཕྲུག་ ཡིན། “I’m a student” (personal / direct / the speaker identifies w/ the statement)
      – འདི་ དེབ་ རེད་ད། “This is a book!” (impersonal / factual / the statement is world knowledge)
    • or, follow another main verb and ‘help’ by providing the evidential information:
      – ཁ་ སྐོམ་ སོང་། ཆུ་ འཐུང་གི་ ཡིན། “My throat’s dry. I’ll drink some water” (V+གི་+ཡིན།, f. personal)
      – བ་ཕྱུག_ -གིས་ ཚལ་ ཟ་ རེད་ད། “The cow ate the vegetables” (V+[པ་]+རེད།, p. impersonal)
  • འདུག / སོང་ are both evidentials that show the speaker has direct evidence of what they are saying:

    • འདུག can also be used as a main verb to talk about things that are or aren’t:
      – འབུ་གྲོག་མ་ ཆུང་ཆུང་ གཅིག་ འདུག “There’s a little ant (there)…” (direct / perceptual, it’s there, and I see it!)
    • In helping verb constructions, these both convey direct, perceptual information, but འདུག་ (lit. ‘stay’) conveys things that are happening now, while སོང་ (lit. ‘went’) conveys the very recent or recent past:
      – ད་ སོ་ བཀྲུ་གི་ འདུག “Now he’s brushing his teeth” (V+གི་+འདུག, pr. perceptual)
      – ད་ ཧ་གོ་ སོང་། “Now I understood” (V+སོང་, p. perceptual)
      – ཨ་ནི་ ཨ་ཕ་གིས་ ང་ ལ་ ice cream་ ཉོས་ སོང་། “And dad bought me ice cream”
  • ཡོད as the main verb shows location or posession; as an evidential, it communicates info only the speaker knows:

    • ག་བར་ ཡོད། (Q) ང་ ནང་ལ་ ཡོད། (A) “Where are you?” “I’m at home!” (ཡོད།)
    • (ང་ ལ་) ཁྱི་ གཅིག་ ཡོད་ད། “I have a dog!” (S+ལ…ཡོད།)
    • ང་ ནང་ལ་ བསྡད་གི་ ཡོད། “I’m staying home” (V+གི་+ཡོད།, pr. personal)

Communicative Goals using the evidential verbs

In sum, these are all the evidentials a beginner is introduced to in the earliest level of Esukhia materials. They are there to help the student achieve the following communicative goals:

  • Talking about things that are and aren’t (རེད་ / མ་རེད།)
  • Refering to ‘X’; asking what something is
  • Talking about yourself – things you are / where you’re from (ཡིན་ / རེད་), where you are / where you’re going (ཡོད)
  • Basic greetings & asking how someone is
  • Expressing possession (ང་ལ་ཡོད།)
  • Talking about everyday experiences, what you see (འདུག)
  • Talking about what you’re doing (V+གི་ཡོད། / V+བསྡད་ཡོད།), or what someone else is doing (V+གི་འདུག)
  • Asking prices, times, etc. (རེད)