Some languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, have a dedicated belief verb that one uses for describing false beliefs. For instance, in Mandarin, yiwei is used to describe beliefs that the speaker wants to emphasize are false; xiang is a neutral belief verb, like English 'think' and 'believe,' and can be used to describe any belief, regardless of whether the speaker considers it true or false. (You might translate yiwei into English as "be under the mistaken impression that.")

There's been a lot of research on these verbs in developmental psychology. (The question is, roughly, "If a child grows up speaking a language that has a special false-belief verb, do they acquire the concept of false belief or the ability to think about false beliefs any faster?" This meta-analysis refers to a number of studies on this question in Chinese languages, if anyone's interested.) But I haven't seen any linguistic work on the subject.

Can anyone point me towards any linguistic work on false-belief verbs, in any language?

  • 4
    French has a similar verb, but its modern use is quite limited: cnrtl.fr/lexicographie/accroire
    – JPP
    Apr 4, 2012 at 8:28
  • 1
    Here's a possible lead: mendeley.com/research/linguistic-practice-falsebelief-tasks-1 Apr 15, 2012 at 1:40
  • @James -- Thanks! I've seen lots of psychological literature on these verbs, and none of it really seems to say much from a linguistic point of view. But I'll check that one out. Apr 17, 2012 at 0:03
  • I'd be interested to learn more about your research. I'm slightly concerned as you seem to be walking the fine line between the fallacy that people can't comprehend concepts that are not in their language and the observed phenomenon that language influences how people associate word and concept (e.g. if you're a native speaker in a language where "bridge" is femanine then you're more likely to associate it with femanine adjectives, if masculine then masculine adjectives). Good luck.
    – acattle
    Jul 2, 2012 at 0:50
  • Well, to be clear, it's not my research. I'm just a linguist, not a psychologist, and I'm interested in these verbs for purely linguistic reasons. But if you want to know more about the psychological research here (which I agree is potentially problematic) then the papers linked above are a good place to start. Jul 2, 2012 at 18:44

2 Answers 2


The usual caveat of competence versus performance naturally has to be raised first. A speaker of one language may have to go through more hoops to convey an idea in the same way as a speaker of another language, but both may be equally capable of thinking the same thing. Language is also one interface out of many, and culture and social experience, for example, are variables deeply intertwined with language and thus hard to tease apart.

That said, there was one study that suggested deaf children who hadn't been exposed to sign language performed less well in false-belief tasks (cited in http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2000852/). I'm not aware of work in the same vein by linguists though. This following paper is a psychology study, but it involves similar variables to the ones you have in mind: http://www.psych.uni-goettingen.de/de/development/publications/1matsui_rakoczy_et_al_2009.pdf

Somewhat tangential to the question, although I'm not sure how relevant, is diachronic subjectification/intersubjectification, where meaning shifts toward being more about the addresser/addressee over time: http://www.stanford.edu/~traugott/resources/TraugottDavidseIntersbfn.pdf


I consider the term "false-belief" a bit tricky. "Belief" implies that the object of it is not certain. When someone is sure about something, this person would say "I know X" instead of "I believe X".

If I say "I know X exists", I have no doubt about it. If I say "I believe X exists", I'm considering that I may be wrong.

Nothing guarantees that the person who says "I know X..." is correct, this person may be mistaken, then you could say "This person believes X...".

Possibly by "false-belief" you meant "unaware of mistake", but anyway I thought this might add to the discussion.

If a person A states "This is X" ("I know X"), it is considered a knowledge, and as such, not an object of doubt. Some person B may find that A is mistaken and say "'A' believes this is X, but it is actually Y" ("I know 'A' is mistaken"). A 'false-belief' verb would only dislocate the source of knowledge/doubt, as there is no end to this. Some person C could say "'B' considers 'A' to be mistaken, but 'B' is wrong", etc. (As far as I'm concerned, all languages have such words as "mistake", "error", "fault", "confusion", "minsunderstanding" ... in some cases the noun maybe become a verb, as in "He mistook my intentions"; the mandarin case would only be some specific form of this)

  • 7
    You know, I agree that there are all sorts of epistemological issues that these verbs raise. But that's not really what I'm looking for here. I was hoping to find linguistic work on how speakers actually use them, not philosophical opinions on whether that usage is somehow illogical or problematic. Jul 1, 2012 at 18:55
  • 1
    @DanVelleman ok, I just thought that something was better than nothing. Sorry that it wasn't helpful. I do think that these issues are related to you problem, though, if you consider the semantic value of "know" and "believe", possibly the mandarin verbs don't seem so special.
    – Tames
    Jul 1, 2012 at 19:07
  • 2
    That's exactly the sort of question I'd like to see some linguistic work on. What precisely is the semantic value of yiwei? In what way is it different from the semantic value of xiang, or of English 'know' or 'believe'? So I agree that it's an important issue. I just don't think it will be possible to work out the answer a priori. If nobody's actually done the linguistic fieldwork to get the answer, then there's no way we can get there by conceptual analysis alone. Jul 2, 2012 at 18:43
  • @DanVelleman is it possible to have a completely objective knowledge of the semantic value of a word? I don't think so, because this definition relies on a chain of signifiers, turns out the task would never end. In structural semantics, what happens is a classification in groups that share a semantic field and this classification cannot be of more precision, but less, otherwise you could not form groups. In some cases, even if the two signifiers are different, they may refer to the same concept ('child' and 'infant'), it is a matter of asking what is really the difference between them.
    – Tames
    Jul 2, 2012 at 21:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.