Universiteit van Amsterdam


Institute for Logic, Language and Computation

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21 November 2013, Crosslinguistic Semantics [XLSX], Igor Yanovich (MIT, Tubingen)

Speaker: Igor Yanovich (MIT, Tubingen)
Title: The many faces of a modal with different forces
Date: Thursday 21 November 2013
Time: 15:00-17:00
Location: Vendelstraat 307 (old location philosophy dept), Amsterdam


Sometimes a natural-language modal would exhibit peculiar behavior: in some sentences, it would seem to carry a possibility meaning, while in others, it'd seem to convey necessity. When such behavior was recently discovered in three languages of the American Pacific Northwest by semantic fieldworkers (Rullmann et al. 2008, Peterson 2010, Deal 2011), it was concluded that the modals in question are not ambiguous, but rather occupy a special place in the typology of modals. The label for such unambiguous modals is variable-force modals. On the other hand, when similar behavior was long ago observed for Old and Middle English *motan (>modern "must") and its cognates in other Germanic (Dutch moeten, German muessen), historical linguists analyzed those modals as genuinely ambiguous between possibility and necessity.

In this talk, I will discuss three cases of a "modal with different forces", and show that despite superficial similarities, all three involve quite different underlying semantics. Old English *motan of the Alfredian prose appears to be non-ambiguous, and thus a true variable-force modal. Its Middle English descendant *moten, however, developed into an ambiguous expression: its many uses no longer can be covered by a single uniform meaning, and some of those are clear necessity uses, while others aren't. Finally, Slavic reflexes of Proto-Slavic "jьmati" 'have' may have a variety of readings including necessity, possibility and futurate ones (e.g., in Old Polish and Old Ukrainian), though different Slavic languages show different mixes of readings. Thus there is vast semantic variation among modals that all superficially look variable-force, and each new case needs to be investigated on its own terms.

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