Frequently, when I show fellow educators what I’ve learned about the written word, they balk. The linguistic evidence I provide sometimes goes against tradition and conventional wisdom in language education. Instead of offering counter-evidence, however, I find that more often, they offer citations. They cite other people, like authors, researchers, or even linguists, or published materials, like references, dictionaries, curricula, and websites. To be sure, that’s often how academic writing works, and much angst and effort goes in to teaching and learning how to cite “correctly.”
But is a citation really the same as evidence? What do those words really mean? Let’s investigate.
My starting place, for convenience, is always my Mac references application. This time, I’m starting in the thesaurus. Here’s what I find:
1 a citation from an eighteenth-century text quotation, quote, extract, excerpt, passage, line; reference, allusion.
2 a citation for gallantry commendation, mention, honorable mention.
3 Law: a traffic citation summons, ticket, subpoena, writ, court order.
Okay, all of these are pretty familiar connotations for the word, and they’re in keeping with the common use of citation in academic writing. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, I learn that citation, and of course cite, derive from a Latin root meaning ‘to cause to move, arouse, summon, urge, call.’ That makes sense: when we cite we call on another author, summon another’s research, and cause the reader to move to another work if they want to understand the original methodology.
If we consider words that share the morpheme <cite> with citation, a stronger sense of the word begins to emerge: excite, incite, recite, resuscitate . . . all involve stirring something up, summoning, calling, even reviving something nearly dead.
If we go back further historically from Latin, we find that citation shares an Indo-European etymology with the Germanic words hest and behest, both of which denote urging or commanding, and with the Greek terms cinema and kinesthetic, both denoting movement.
A citation, then, summons up someone else’s text, moves the reader to someone else’s woven ideas, someone else’s evidence. But a citation itself offers no real proof, no independent confirmation of the validity of the cited source.
On the other hand, evidence boasts some pretty impressive semantic partners. Let’s check back with the Mac thesaurus:
1 they found evidence of his plotting proof, confirmation, verification, substantiation, corroboration, affirmation, attestation.
2 the court accepted her evidence testimony, statement, attestation, declaration, avowal, submission, claim, contention, allegation; Law deposition, representation, affidavit.
3 evidence of a struggle signs, indications, pointers, marks, traces, suggestions, hints; manifestation.
Wow! Proof. Verification. Confirmation. Okay, so evidence can mean just a hint or a suggestion, but if it does, it implies that there’s a trace, a vestige, a trail to follow. Do these connotations hold up under closer morphological and etymological investigation?
Yep. Using the Word Searcher, I determine that the base element in the word evidence is <vide>, which also surfaces, along with its twin, <vise>, in the words, provide, provision, vision, advise, and supervision. This twin base hails from the Latin videre, ‘to see.’ The word evidence is built from the prefix <e->, meaning ‘out’ or ‘out of’ and <vide>, ‘to see.’ So evidence is something we can see out completely.
Beyond the morphological family of evidence, we can link the word etymologically to the following list: witness, guide, wit, wisdom, survey, view, clairvoyant, idea and even envy. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, we learn that these words come from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to know, to see.’ When something is visible, obvious, or apparent, we say that it’s evident, not that it’s cited.
Let’s consider, as an example, the base of words such as credit, incredible, credulous, credential, and credence. Several published sources, including the NTC’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins, list <cred> as the base of these words, from the Latin credere, ‘to believe.’ But let’s consider the following linguistic evidence:
In English, when a base has 1 vowel and ends with 1 consonant, we double the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix, as in the following example:
<rob> + <er> → <robber>
When we add a vowel suffix to a base ending with a final, non-syllabic (‘silent’) <e>, we drop the <e>, as we see in
<love> + <ing> → <loving>
Understanding these basic rules, then, let’s consider the base of credit, incredible, credence, etc. If we credit NTC and other resources as credible sources, we would be stuck with such ungainly derivations as
<cred> + <ence> → *<creddence>
<in> + <cred> + <ible> → *<increddible>
If we consider the linguistic evidence, we would have to recognize that the actual structure of such words is, in fact, as follows:
<crede> + <ence> → <credence>
<in> + <crede> + <ible> → <incredible>
<crede> + <ent> + <i> + <al> → <credential>
It may be hard to believe, since the base <crede> does not surface in English anymore. Its Old English form has long been respelled as <creed>, and all of its modern derivations have vowel suffixes, replacing that final <e> and giving the surface appearance of <cred> as a base.
But wait, what difference does it really make? You say tomayto, I say tomahto, right? Can’t we just cite the sources that claim that <cred> is correct? Not if we’re concerned with ensuring that our writing system that is at work in robber and loving holds up through the whole of English.
In the professional development I’ve offered teachers for the past 15 years, I’ve cited experts plenty. When something didn’t make sense to a student or a teacher, or to me, the only response I had was to cite the person or the resource that had said it was thus and so. Now, however, if something about written language isn’t immediately clear to me, I’ve learned to investigate it: the evidence is right there, waiting to be discovered! I’ve stopped taking resources at face value, and started interrogating them instead.
A good bit of my doctoral research now involves tracking down the original source of ‘linguistic’ information as cited in reading and spelling curricula and teaching materials. Where was it cited from? What was the methodology of the original source? How did the original source gather its evidence? Too often, it seems, folks are willing to parade published information as fact, just because it’s published. But the NTC dictionary‘s only methodology for ascertaining a base in a word is to boldface the letters that the words have in common. But that’s not a real methodology; it’s just a surface observation.
So what’ll it be? Moving the reader to another text, or proving how language works? Do we insist on seeing for ourselves or are we content with believing what others have written? Are we too comfortable merely citing resources rather than interrogating them? How do we know if what a source says about language is credible?
In math and science, we don’t cite sources as proof that 2+2=4, or that baking soda and vinegar react. We demonstrate, we show, we provide visible evidence. Likewise, teaching language from an examination of linguistic evidence trumps whatever street ‘cred’ a famous person or published source — even the OED itself — might have.
© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010