LINGUIST List 13.2935

Wed Nov 13 2002

Review: Syntax: Barbiers et al, eds.(2002)

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  1. Zouhair Maalej, Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System

Message 1: Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System

Date: Tue, 12 Nov 2002 16:13:53 +0000
From: Zouhair Maalej <>
Subject: Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System

Barbiers, Sjef, Frits Beukema, and Wim van der Wurff, eds. (2002)
Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System.
John Benjamins Publishing Company, hardback ISBN 90 272 2768 3 (Euro.) /
1 58811 167 9 (US), viii+290pp, Linguistik Actuell/ Linguistics Today 47.

Book Announcement on Linguist: 

Zouhair Maalej, 
Department of English, University of Manouba, Tunis-Manouba.
Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Book's contents

The book under review is a collection of papers first read to the 32nd
annual meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea on ''Modality in
Generative Grammar'' at the University of St Andrews (Scotland,
1998). The book also includes invited papers. If Barbiers'
introductory paper is discounted, five out of the ten contributions
deal with modality and its relation to negation or polarity.

Current issues in modality, by Sjef Barbiers (pp. 1-17)

Starting from the assumption that modals are ambiguous between a
monadic (epistemic) and a dyadic (root) readings, Barbiers mentions
five prevailing trends to explain this alternation:

(i) Reducibility to transitive vs. intransitive, which is said not to
apply even to languages like Dutch and German whose modals share
common features with lexical verbs.

(ii) Analyzability into subject raising vs. control structures, where
a control analysis of modals seems to be fraught with all sorts

(iii) Generation at higher functional vs. lower lexical base
positions, which positions are hard to establish owing to various
contradictory research on different places for modals and lexical
verbs, different positions for necessity and possibility, different
positions at PF and LF, and developmental considerations.

(iv) Movement at LF vs. movement elsewhere

(v) Larger vs. smaller size complement selection, which turns out for
Barbiers to be a more viable criterion for forcing epistemic or root

Modal verbs: Epistemics in German and English, by Werner Abraham (pp. 19-50)

Abraham imputes the different nature of modality in English and German
to the loss by English of aspectual (or Actionsart) properties, and
maintains that epistemic modals are analyzable as subject raising
verbs and deontic modals as control structures.

Modality and polarity, by Sjef Barbiers (pp. 51-73)

Barbiers offers a view of the epistemic-deontic disambiguation along
the kind of complement a modal may take, challenging the
raising-control analysis. He starts by building arguments against the
P-F deletion of the infinitive in the case of non-verbal modal
complements, and concludes that ''Dutch modals can have a non-verbal
complement, as long as this complement denotes a value on a bounded
scale'' (P. 56). Verbal and non-verbal complements are said to ''allow
root interpretations if they denote a variable property'' whereas
''when the complement of the modal denotes a fixed property of the
subject, an epistemic interpretation is forced'' (p. 59).

Modals, objects and negation in late Middle English, by Frits Beukema
and Wim van der Wurff (pp. 75-102)

Beukema and van der Wurff address word order in Middle English (ME) as a
possible explanation for the epistemic-deontic distinction. They distinguish
three stages in this order: (i) object in preverbal position (14th C.), (ii)
restricted occurrence of object in preverbal position (15th C.), and (iii)
disappearance of object from preverbal position (16th C.).

On the use and interpretation of root infinitives in early Dutch, by
Elma Blom (pp. 103-131)

Blom bases her paper on Hoekstra and Hyams' (1998) treatment of root
infinitives, rejecting [-realized] as ambiguous, default morphological
marking as only perfective, and deontic vs. epistemic modality as only
motivated by eventive vs. stative verb types. As an alternative, Blom
offers a corpus-based analysis of root infinitives used by six Dutch
children. The results are that root infinitives occur as modal and
non-modal. Interestingly, modal root infinitives are [+V] whereas
non-modal root infinitives are [+N], which, she suggests, strongly
points to the fact that infinitives are analyzed by children as nouns.

Modals and negation in English, by Annabel Cormack and Neil Smith (pp.

Cormack and Smith's paper is about the scope of modality and negation
in English. They combine syntax, semantics and pragmatics to
distinguish two types of modals and three types of negation. They
offer a cognitive requirement explanation for why epistemics are
classed higher than deontics.

System interaction in the coding of modality, by Zygmunt Frajzyngier
(pp. 165-184)

Frajzyngier found correlations in an East-Chadic language in the
coding of modality between epistemic and indicative and deontic and
imperative. Subdomains of the epistemic modality include
hypotheticals and dubitatives. Subdomains of the deontic modality
include subjunctives and prohibitatives. Markers of epistemic and
deontic modality may co-occur within the same clause.

Modality and theory of mind: Perspectives from language development
and autism, by Anna Papafragou (pp. 185-204)

Papafragou adduces evidence from autism to show how the capacity of
autistic children to reason epistemically is impaired vis-à-vis their
capacity to handle and understand deontic modality. She argues that
this impairment is due to lack of the ability to ''metarepresent
mental representations'' (p. 199).

Negative polarity and modality in Middle Dutch ghe-particle
constructions, by Gertjan Postma (pp. 205-244)

Postma found that the Middle Dutch ghe-particle has ''all the verbal
negative polarity items in Modern Dutch'' (p. 236).

(Negative) Imperatives in Slovene, by Milena Milojevic Sheppard and
Marija Golden (pp. 245-259)

Contrary to main-clause claims for imperatives, Milojevic and Golden
found imperatives in Slovene to occur within the focus of reporting
verbs and in embedded contexts such as relative and appositive

Modality and mood in Macedonian, by Olga Miseska Tomic (pp. 261-277)

Miseska Tomic argues that lexical modals in Macedonian are tensed
while modal auxiliaries are non-inflecting. The passage from tensed to
tenseless is argued to have been at the origin of stopping taking
subjunctive complements.

Critical evaluation

Their allegiance being to the TGG paradigm, the authors of this
collection of papers, with very few exceptions, have obviously sought
interaction only between modality/polarity and syntax and semantics
within the verbal system. Such an allegiance has actually constricted
the scope of this interaction. If the authors could for a moment
leave aside ideological commitments, and look at modality as a way
language users interact socially with one another, they would realize
how important factors other than the syntactic ones are in an account
of modality.

The assumption of ambiguity of modality expressions claimed by
Barbiers is pragmatically questionable. In an appropriate context of
use, ''John must be at home at six o'clock'', will not remain
ambiguous between an either/or interpretation. This assumption has far
reaching consequences for a theory of meaning calculation. Let us take
polysemy, for instance. Is it the case that all the different
co-polysemes remain active in spite of contextual features available
to the language user/understander? The answer seems to me to be
negative. The context has a selective/restrictive effect on active
meanings as attested by psycholinguistic research on language
processing. By the same token, does the context have nothing to do
with disambiguating most of the de-contextualized examples of deontic
and epistemic modality given in the collection?

According to Barbiers, complements that force an epistemic
interpretation include the following:

(i) Stative complements which contain an individual-level predicate,
provided that the subject has fixed reference.

(ii) Perfect complements, but only if the completion stage of the
event has taken place in the past. (p. 12)

There must be no quarrel about this. However, there seems to exist at
least another case where the complement is neither of what Barbiers
mentioned, and yet the modal admits an epistemic reading as in the
following example:

She must be touching up her hair; it never used to be quite that
auburn shade, which could be interpreted as ''current evidence forces
me to conclude that she has been touching up her hair''. It clearly is
a case where the complement is progressive not perfective.

One important contribution of this collection has to do with the
variety of languages dealt with: English, Dutch, German, Macedonian,
Slovene, Tchadian. Reference is also made in many papers to other
languages such as Italian. As a result of this variety of languages,
the collection shows how much fine-tuning syntactic theory needs in
light of emerging data from understudied languages that might put to
question many of the claims of syntactic theory in relation to
modality (cf. Bybee and Fleischman, 1995; Heine, 1995). As has been
suggested -- implicitly and explicitly -- by contributors, more
research is needed to ascertain the claims of current syntactic theory
as legitimately about Language not a restricted collection of
languages. This is evidenced by the many adjustments that syntactic
theory had to adopt in order to fit commonsense claims and new data
from newly studied languages.

Before closing this part, minor typos must be signaled:

(i) Verb to ''be'' is missing from ''this cannot the whole story''
(p. 24).

(ii) ''A'' in ''a invariable property of the subject'' should be
''an'' (p. 52).

(iii) The ''en'' in ''the modals moeten 'must' en mogen 'may' are
polarity items'' should be ''and'' (p. 68).

(iv) ''Than'' in ''we show in this paper than the English modals.''
should be ''that'' (p. 133).

(v) ''Than'' in ''than that part of the undertaking.'' should be
''then'' (p. 154).


Bybee, Joan & Suzanne Fleischman (1995). ''Modality in Grammar and
Discourse: An Introductory Essay.'' In: Joan Bybee & Suzanne
Fleischman (eds.), Modality in Grammar and
Discourse. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company,

Heine, Bernd (1995). ''Agent-oriented vs. Epistemic Modality: Some
Observations on German Modals.'' In: Joan Bybee & Suzanne Fleischman
(eds.), Modality in Grammar and Discourse. Amsterdam/Philadelphia:
John Benjamins Publishing Company, 19-53.

Hoekstra, T. & N. Hyams (1998). ''Aspects of root infinitives.''
Lingua, 106, 81-112.


Zouhair Maalej is an assistant professor of linguistics. His interests
include cognitive linguistics, metaphor, pragmatics, cognition-culture
interface, modality, neuropsychology, psycholinguistics, critical
discourse analysis, sign language and gesture, etc. He has been
awarded a senior Fulbright research scholarship that he is currently
using at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (2002-2003) in
writing a book on cognitive metaphor, with special reference to
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