PostHeaderIcon Modality And Speaker’s Attitude

Modality has often been described as the speaker’s attitude. This is actually a very vague definition. A language may have devices to indicate whether or not a speaker believes or is willing to stand by what he says. This may be regarded as attitude in the true sense. Saying something as a quotation sometimes serves the purpose of indicating that the speaker does not accept full responsibility for what is said. Or, as in English, one may use sentence adverbials such as apparently, supposedly, ostensibly, purportedly, reportedly, etc., or phrases such as “as he would have us believe”, “the so-called”, etc.

This basic function of all such devices is to dissociate oneself from the responsibility for the truth of what is said. In addition to this it is also possible to indicate a certain bias on the part of the speaker. The Malayalam expressions ‘atee’ (that one) and ‘poolum’ (may be), both added to the finite verb, exemplify these functions. While the former suggests that the speaker is not accepting any responsibility for the truth of what he says, thee latter further adds a specific elements of scepticism. Generally, a sentence that is unmarked for speaker’s attitude implies commitment to what is said. This is reflected in the obvious strangeness of an unqualified denial immediately following a statement, as illustrated by these examples:

(1) *John got married yesterday; but I don’t think he really did
(2) *Mary might visit her aunt tomorrow; but I don’t think she really might

However, the speaker is absolved of this responsibility once he uses the reported speech construction or uses one of the various ‘disavowal devices’ mentioned above. Thus sentences such as (3) and (4) are perfectly acceptable:

(3) {I have been told that / Apparently / Reportedly…} John got married yesterday; but I don’ think he really did.
(4) {I have been told that / Apparently / Reportedly…} Mary might visit her aunt tomorrow; but I don’t think she really might.

This particular function in language of indicating the attitude of the speaker to what is said must be distinguished from one of indicating how he views the actuality of the narrated matter. In a certain sense we might say that the latter is related to his capacity to know and assess the facts concerning the extra-linguistic universe, whereas the former is related to his belief about what others say or think about such facts. We might also say that the former works within the opposition Affirmed Vs Unaffirmed while the latter works within the opposition Actual Vs Possible. It is the speaker’s assessment of the facts concerning the extra-linguistic universe that we shall call modality, which should be kept distinct from his attitudes.

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