DS10 - Défi des autres savoirs

Re-thinking English Modal Constructions: From feature-based paradigms to usage-based probabilistic representations – REM

Submission summary

One of the central features of human language is that speakers can verbalize states of affairs that are not factual, but that rather should, might, or could be the case. Non-factual ideas can be expressed through words and constructions that belong to the grammatical domain of modality (Palmer 2001). In linguistics, the study of modality has given rise to a substantial research literature (De Haan & Hanssen 2009, Nuyts & Van der Auwera 2016) that forms the context of this project, which focuses on modal verbs in the grammar of English. Specifically, its focus will be on five core modal auxiliaries (may, might, can, should, and must), three semi-modals (have to, ought to, need to), and a periphrastic construction (be able to). The main question of this project relates modality to human cognition and the mental representation of language: How are modal expressions mentally represented? It is here that we see a gap in the research landscape that has so far not been sufficiently addressed: We are interested in the linguistic knowledge that speakers of English have that allows them to choose between expressions such as 'You should go home now', 'You have to go home now', or 'You ought to go home now'. These examples express non-factual ideas that are very similar, but subtly different. An idea that is still relatively widely held in the literature on modality (cf. Van der Auwera and Plungian 1998) is that the meanings of modal expressions can be distinguished on the basis of binary features such as the distinction between obligation and permission, “weak” and “strong” modality, and deontic and epistemic modality. To illustrate, the sentence 'You should go home now' encodes an obligation, whereas the sentence 'You may go home now' denotes a permission; 'You must go home now' denotes a stronger obligation than the sentence 'You should go home now'. While we do not dispute the usefulness of categorical semantic distinctions between different expressions of modality, we question whether these distinctions exhaustively capture speakers’ linguistic knowledge of modal expressions and whether matrices of cross-cutting categorical features adequately represent that knowledge. This project advances an alternative view that aligns itself with two recent theoretical developments in linguistics, namely the frameworks of Cognitive Construction Grammar (Goldberg 1995, 2006) and usage-based linguistics (Bybee & Hopper 2001, Bybee 2010). We hypothesize that knowledge of modal expressions is exemplar-based and probabilistic. In other words, speakers’ knowledge of modal expressions is not to be modeled as a paradigm of forms that can be fully described through a set of cross-cutting categorical features, but rather as a network of form-meaning pairs (Hilpert 2014, Hilpert & Diessel 2016) in which the forms of modal expressions are connected to a range of meanings through associative links. Differences in association strength account for the fact that speakers choose a certain modal expression in a certain speech situation. We thus view speakers’ knowledge of modal expression not as a discrete one-to-one mapping between a form and a list of semantic features, but rather as knowledge of the probability that a given form will convey a certain meaning in a certain context.

Project coordinator

Madame Ilse Depraetere (Univ. Lille, CNRS, UMR 8163 - STL - Savoirs Textes Langage)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


MH Université de Neuchâtel
STL Univ. Lille, CNRS, UMR 8163 - STL - Savoirs Textes Langage

Help of the ANR 237,099 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2017 - 36 Months

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