Modal domain

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Modal domains as defined in a branching-times framework. Solid: the actual past and present. Dashed: the possible futures. Dotted: the counterfactual domain

Modal meanings are commonly classified according to two dimensions: modal force (necessity, possibility) and modal flavour (epistemic, deontic etc.). In addition, many descriptions of mood-prominent languages rely on the distinction between realis and irrealis. In our research with the West Ambrym language, however, it appeared that the latter distinction is more useful and basic to the system. But the domain of the irrealis has to be further divided into the counterfactual and possible domains. These can be characterized in terms of a branching-times structure:

  • The actual present i0 and the actual past (predecessors of i0).
  • The counterfactual past, present and future: indices that are neither predecessors nor successors of i0.
  • The possible future(s): successors of i0.

For the purposes of our tagset, we make a three-way distinction which builds on those domains, but is not entirely identical to them. The three values we use are actual, counterfactual and possible: The labels actual and counterfactual coincide with the corresponding domains. The label possible comprises the possible futures as well as the combination of the actual and the counterfactual past and present.

The factual

The actual present is given by context. By default, this is the time and world of speaking, but the world may be a fictional one and the present may be a narrative present.

mwe liye an bosi
REAL take 3S.POSS copra.chisel
"He took his copra chisel."

The factual domain comprises the actual present and past. Generic assertions are also classified as factual, despite their modally ambiguous nature:

  • Mosquitoes drink blood.
  • If you switch the light on after dark, it attracts/ will attract mosquitoes.

The counterfactual

Counterfactual clauses are mostly restricted by conditions as in he would have taken the train, if it had been on time or I would go to the conference, but I cannot find a good childcare solution.

Another prominent context for counterfactual modality are complement clauses of verbs like think, when the believes of the matrix subject differ from the believes of the speaker; or complement clauses of verbs expressing impossible wishes about the past or present.

  • She thought he had died.
  • I wish I hadn't eaten this.

The possible

The possible comprises several domains, depending on the temporal reference of the clause. Here are some examples:

  • I will attend the conference. (Future possibilities) future, possible
  • I have to attend the conference. (Future possibilities) future, possible
  • I may/might attend the conference. (Future possibilities) future, possible
  • She may be attending the conference. (combination of actual present and counterfactual present -- present possibility) present, possible
  • She may/ might have attended the conference. (combination of actual present and counterfactual past -- past possibility) past, possible

An interesting case is posed by TAM-marked serial predicates in negative contexts such as the following:

nge tamo ngye tere gone ne omane ke ngye mwe kie
now first.born 3S NEG.REAL make 3S.IR.NEG like CP.RE 3S 3S.RE say
But the firstborn, he did not do as he said. (Daakie.Andri2.038)

Here, the secondary predicate omane, "be like" is preceded by the negative irrealis marker ne. While several different combinations of mood and polarity values would be plausible for this marker in this context, we decided to tag it as possible, negative. In addition, the keywords NEGMAT and SERIAL may be added.

A similar difficult case are complements of negated predicates expressing possibility, which would usually be translated by a modal auxiliary.

Mwe ka, 'e'e, to wese [ka na -n liye ngok]
REAL say no NEG enough MOD 1S -POT.NEG take 2S
He said: No, I can't carry you.

The bracketed section here should be tagged as future, possible, positive

Other modal categories

Modal force

Modal statements may differ in terms of their force. The sentence she must be in Berlin is intuitively a stronger commitment than the sentence she may be in Berlin. While many European languages have paradigms of auxiliaries that differentiate systematically between necessity and possibility, the interpretation of modal force in the context of Melanesian languages is often context-dependent.

Modal flavor

Modal statements can further be differentiated in terms of their flavor. The most prominently discussed flavors are epistemic and deontic. A statement expressing an epistemic modal flavor can often be paraphrased as in view of what is known, it is necessary/possible that.... An example would be the sentence she must have arrived in Berlin by now. By contrast, a deontic statement can be paraphrased as in view of the rules/ laws, it is necessary/ possible that..., as in you may go now. Further often mentioned flavors are bouletic, teleologic, intrinsic etc. These interpretations are known to be widely context-dependent and do not seem to be systematically differentiated in the Oceanic languages of Melanesia.