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Review of  Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System

Reviewer: Zouhair Maalej
Book Title: Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System
Book Author: Sjef Barbiers Frits Beukema Wim van der Wurff
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Dutch, Middle
Issue Number: 13.2935

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Date: Tue, 12 Nov 2002 13:19:39 -0800
From: Zouhair Maalej
Subject: Syntax: Review of Barbiers et al, eds.(2002) Modality

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.

Reviewed by 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 problems.

(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 interpretation.

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.

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

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.

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 clauses.

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

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

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, 1-14.

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,

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 Arabic.