Posts Tagged ‘Modality’

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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Modality As A Semantic Category

Mood Forms

Message Types and Modality


PostHeaderIcon Modalizers

Just as on the expression side mood contents have mood forms. Modality has modalizers as typical devices for expression. And, as mood contents can be expressed by means other than typical mood forms, modalities can also be expressed by other means. Modalisers are typical in the sense that they are closely bound with the verbs in many languages and/or they can be shown to have distinctive syntactic properties in most cases. Thus, for English one can establish a set of modalizers on the basis of syntactic criteria. In other languages, modalizers might exist as verbal suffixes and endings or as parenthetic words as they do in Russian. So long as there is a particular device or set of devices to express modality in a language, and these are governed by syntactic or morphological principles, such items would be taken to constitute the typical set of modalisers in that language.

For example, in English we can have sentences such as ,

(1) a. It is possible that it is snowing on the mountains now.
b. It is possibly snowing on the mountains now.
c. There is a possibility of snowing on the mountains now.

(2) It may be snowing on the mountains now.

Among possible others, all sharing something in common as far as the modality is concerned. But possible, possibly and possibility do not belong to any exclusive syntactic class sharing in common the function of indicating modality as does may. Therefore we consider may alone to be a modalizer although the other words also can be used for similar purposes.

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Modality As Semantic Category

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Message Types And Modality

PostHeaderIcon Message Types and Modality

The function of specifying the message type should be distinguished form another function of indicating the type of assessment expressed in the sentence. This can be made clear by postulating two aspects of language communication: the speech itself and the narrated matter. The narrated matter is the speaker’s view of the extra-linguistic universe, as he knows it to be existing or as he can envisage it to be possible to exist. The speech itself comes into play whenever he wants to use his linguistic competence to express his understanding of this universe. Any language should be able to carry out these two functions although how many types can be expressed and what they are would depend on each language.

What has been explain above with regard to typed of messages is related to speech itself. A sentence on the one hand has devices by which it can indicate what kind of communication is going on: whether passing on an information, eliciting an information or trying to influence others’ behavior, and so on. This function is however, quite distinct from that of giving an indication as to what sort of an assessment the speaker has in regard to the narrated matter, whether to him it is a verified thing or a doubtful one, whether he considers it as only a possibility or a certainty, etc. This latter kind of indication in a sentence, which has to do with the narrated matter as such could be termed modality.

On the content side, mood content or message type specification characterises the speech itself and modality characterises the narrated matter. One is outwardly directed, giving the sentence as a whole a certain character as to how it should be received; and the other is inwardly directed characterising the information contained in the sentence.

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Mood Forms

Modality As Semantic Category

Modality And Speaker’s Attitude

PostHeaderIcon Mood Forms

Mood forms are individual morphological realization of the moods in each language, the number of which will depend on how many variables like person, number, voice, etc are involved. On the semantic level there are mood contents, the meanings conveyed by the mood forms by themselves or in conjunction with specific syntactic devices. But mood forms and mood contents need not always have a one-to-one correspondence. In English, for example, one can utter a command / request in the form of a question:

(1) a. Step out of the swimming pool (please)
b. Will you (please) step out of the swimming pool?
c. May I request you to step out of the grass?

All the above three sentences have similar mood content, which keep them apart from sentences such as the sentences given below.

(2) Somebody’s treading on the grass.
(3) Is there someone treading on the grass?

The sentences (1), (2) and (3) differ from each other in the sense that they are different types of messages. In (1) someone is asked to do or not to do something. Sentence (2) is used to convey a piece of information and (3) to elicit information. But the differences among 1.a, 1.b and 1. c are of another kind: style, degree of politeness, emotive elements, etc., are some of the factors involved.

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Modality as Semantic Category

PostHeaderIcon Modality As A Semantic Category


Based on the principle of differentiation of levels in linguistic analysis the term mood stands for a syntactic category and modality can be regarded as a semantic term. Thus in the following sample from the paradigm for the Sanskrit word /ksip/ = throw, three moods are distinguished, namely indicative, imperative and potential.

Voice-Active; Number-Singular; Person-1,2 & 3.

Indicative (Pres) Imperative Potential
ksipaami ksipaani ksipeyam
ksipasi ksip ksipes
ksipati ksipatu ksipet

However each of these mood forms can be used to convey a number of different types of messages. For example, the Imperative can be used in the First Person as part of the syntactic device along with a question word /kim/ to ask a question like

(1) kim karvaani te? (What should I do for you?)

One is not justified in positioning an Interrogative Mood for Sanskrit in so far as there is no particular morphological element in the verb characterizing the particular type of message: a question in this case. Instead one should speak of an interrogative message type, where the imperative mood form is used in conjunction with a question word: thee latter explicitly specifying what type of a message is intended.

There is an obvious parallel between mood taken in this sense and tense. Tense, although essentially related to the concept of time is purely a syntactic category.

He is coming now (I can see it).
He is coming next year.

Both of these sentences use the same tense: the present tense. But they refer to two different times, one the actual present and the other, future.

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Modality And Speaker’s Attitude