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What Is a Mirative?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 17, 2024
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A mirative is a grammatical tool used to indicate surprise. It is not used in all languages and is only a theoretical piece of English grammar. Miratives are contained within the mirativity grammar category. The use of a mirative can be found in languages such as Albanian, Ainu, Turkish and Korean. It can also be found in some Native American languages such as Western Apache.

The second function of the mirative is to indicate evidentiality. This is the case in Tibetan, but not in Western Apache, which has separate syntax units for each. Evendentiality is the presence of or lack of evidence in a sentence. This evidence appears in English in the form of modal verbs such as ‘apparently.’ Languages like Eastern Pomo in California use suffixes to indicate different degrees of evidentiality.

Some linguists argue that miratives are present in English. Surprise is demonstrated in spoken English by a rising intonation or stress. In written English, an exclamation mark is often used at the end of the sentence for the same effect.

There are also a number of words which can demonstrate a certain amount of surprise. These words are 'even,' 'still,' 'already' and 'only.' For example, “Jane is still in Budapest?” indicates that the speaker is surprised at Jane being where she is. Stressing verbs when speaking is another means of indicating surprise, but other constructions are required to convey this sense of surprise when written.

English, therefore, applies a mirative meaning to some words in order to express a certain type of surprise. They express surprise at something being more or less than expected. There is no syntax element such as a suffix or inflection designed to demonstrate general surprise like there is to make a sentence accusative. English is not alone in lacking a specific mirative elements, Spanish uses the word ‘solo’ instead of ‘only’ and with the same function.

The mirative is a normal part of Turkish and Korean sentences. It allows languages that do not rely on intonation or stress to convey the emotion of surprise. Korean uses the inflection ‘ney’ to indicate surprise, while Turkish uses the suffix ‘mus,’ for example. Tarma Quechua, a native American language spoken in the Andes, also uses a suffix ‘na’ to convey surprise.

Languages often have an effect on one another. The presence of the mirative in some languages has led to a backward discussion of its presence or absence in English. As Western languages influence native languages in the Americas, the same can be said in reverse. Highland Spanish in the Andes has been influenced by native languages, which has led to the inclusion of the mirative as a grammatical unit.

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