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Review of  Modals in the Languages of Europe

Reviewer: Stella Gevorgyan-Ninness
Book Title: Modals in the Languages of Europe
Book Author: Björn Hansen Ferdinand de Haan
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 22.186

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EDITORS: Björn Hansen and Ferdinand de Haan
TITLE: Modals in the Languages of Europe
SUBTITLE: A Reference Work
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2009

Stella Gevorgyan-Ninness, Temple University, German Department


This book is a collection of essays describing modal constructions in European and Non-European
languages by applying grammaticalisation parameters. The essays are derived from papers given
at a workshop ‘Modals in the languages of Europe,’ held at 38th Conference of the Societas
Linguistica Europaea in 2005. The authors describe grammaticalisation by using the following
parameters: paradigmatic variability, paradigmaticity, integrity, structural scope, bondedness, and
syntagmatic variability. The chapters are divided into three categories: Modals in Indo-European
languages (Western branch), Modals in Indo-European languages (Eastern branch), and Modals in
non-Indo-European languages.

The section on modals in Indo-European languages (Western branch) has chapters devoted to
Germanic languages, Irish, and Greek. In “Modals in the Germanic languages,” Tanja Mortelmans,
Kasper Boye, and Johan van der Auwera compare the central modals in English, Dutch, German,
Danish, and Icelandic to measure to which extent the modals are grammaticalised. Although
modals in all five languages share distinct morphosyntactic features, like being preterito-present,
followed by a bare infinitive, they show different grammaticalisation degrees, both cross-
linguistically and within individual languages (e.g. wollen is less grammaticalised than other modals
in German). Based on Lehmann’s parameters, English modals are highly grammaticalised whereas
Icelandic modals are less grammaticalised. German and Dutch modals are between these two
poles, and Danish modals share many similarities with the English modals. The authors arrive at
the conclusion that the distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic modals is important for
Germanic languages and also that modals need to be integrated into a larger framework with
reference to the entire verbal system of a language. “Modals in Irish” (Peter McQuillan) describes
the modals of necessity and possibility in two main dialects, Northern and Southern Irish, dividing
the modals into internal core members, external core members, and periphery. “Modals in the
Romance languages” (Bert Cornillie, Walter de Mulder, Tine van Hecke, and Dieter Vermandere)
deals with the modal verbs of four Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian, and Rumanian.
The authors argue that the modals in Romance languages -- with the exception of Italian -- do not
tend to form morphologically or syntactically based paradigms, which leads to the semantic
definition of modals as a verbal class. In “Modals in Greek,” Anastasios Tsangalidis examines
modern Greek modal verbs, moods, and modal particles. The author comments that modality
research is a recent development for Greek linguistics. This article also emphasizes the interaction
between tense and aspect, which affects the modal interpretation.

The section on modals in Indo-European languages (Eastern branch) deals with Slavonic
languages, Baltic, Albanian, and Romani. “Modals in the Slavonic languages” (Juliane Besters-
Dilger, Ana Drobnjaković, and Björn Hansen) covers modal verbs in the North and South Slavonic
languages and also deals with language contact, noting that Russian preserved its original modal
structure best of all. Modals in the Slavonic languages differ from the Germanic ones with respect
to the way in which they form different types of construction. “Modals in Baltic” (Axel Holvoet) deals
with epistemic, deontic, and dynamic modality in Lithuanian and Latvian, not limiting the research to
just modal verbs, but also including Latvian debitive mood and modal particles. “Modals in Albanian”
(Walter Breu) analyzes modals in Standard Albanian and its dialects. After researching expressions
of necessity, possibility, and volition in Albanian dialects, he concludes that language contact played
an important role for modals. “Modality in Romani” (Viktor Elšík and Yaron Matras) is the best
example of the impact of language contact. The authors conclude that borrowing happens
according to the following hierarchy: necessity > possibility > volition. They also argue that
impersonal modals are more grammaticalised than personal modals.

The last section of the book, on modals in non-Indo-European languages, covers an languages
ranging from Arabic to Basque. “The grammaticalisation of modal auxiliaries in Maltese and Arabic
vernaculars of the Mediterranean area” (Martine Vanhove, Catherine Miller, and Dominique
Caubert) focuses on modals in Maltese, Moroccan Arabic, and Egyptian and Levantine Arabic with
special attention to Tense-Aspect-Modality (TAM) interaction. The authors claim that if a language
grammaticalises TAM morphemes as verbal auxiliaries, it also grammaticalises modals as verbal
auxiliaries, whereas languages with already developed TAM morphemes grammaticalise modals
towards adverbs. “Modal verbs in Balto-Finnic” (Petar Kehayov and Reeli Torn-Leesik) presents
four types of modality: participant-internal modality, participant-external modality, deontic modality,
and epistemic modality, in the Northern branch (Finnish, Karelian, and Velps) and in the Southern
branch (Estonian, Livonian, and Votic) of the Balto-Finnic languages. Unlike Germanic modals, the
Balto-Finnic languages identify modals based on semantic criteria as a verbal group possessing a
low degree of grammaticalisation. “Modals in Hungarian” (Erika Körtvély) describes modality
patterns in Hungarian formed by modal verbs and auxiliaries, modal adjectives, modal particles,
and also modal affixes. The author concludes that modals in Hungarian, unlike Germanic modals,
do not build recognizable morphological paradigms. “Mood and modality in Berber” (Amina
Mettouchi) deals more with mood and modality in Berber than with modal verbs, concluding that the
grammaticalisation of modals from full verbs does not apply to Berber. Regarding TAM markers in
modality, tense is according to the author apparently not important. Aspect as the marker of interval
vs. boundaries also does not play a central role. “Modality in Basque” (Alan R. King) treats modality
patterns in Basque, a subject which is rarely researched in linguistics. One of the complications of
such research is the fact that modals in Basque do not have homogeneous paradigms, but modal
verbs in Basque have common features like syntactic autonomy in contrast to tense auxiliaries.
“Modals in Turkic” (Lars Johanson) deals with expressions of volition, necessity, and possibility. It
also pays close attention to modality expression renewed under language contact and the relation
between originals and copies regarding different stages of grammaticalisation.


This book provides excellent new research on modality in languages where studies on modal
constructions are rarely conducted. It also emphasizes the impact of language contact in modality.
We find a vast amount of data about borrowing of modals, a research area in modality that is still
Uncovering grammaticalisation patterns for modals, which is the driving principle of this book, is
mainly influenced by research based on Germanic languages. Various aspects of modality have
been covered in research on English and German modal verbs in the last thirty years, for example
Jennifer Coates’ (1983) and Manfred Krug’s (2000) books on English modals, Werner Abraham’s
diverse books and articles regarding German and English modals, and Gabriele Diewald’s
research on German modal verbs (1999). These works are now ''must readings'' for research on
modality. The problem is that although studying the grammaticalisation patterns of modals may play
a big role in Germanic languages, it is not a very useful approach to modal constructions in general.
Grammaticalisation patterns become clear only when epistemic modality is compared with non-
epistemic (deontic and dynamic) modality. Epistemic modals show a higher degree of
grammaticalisation than deontic and dynamic modals. Modals in English, German, and Dutch are,
however, in a unique position because they share similar morphosyntactic features. Modals in
other languages, like Slavonic, Hungarian, and Balto-Finnic, do not share homogeneous features,
which poins to the need for research in a direction other than examining grammaticalisation.
However, the articles in this book on Slavonic languages, Baltic languages, Greek, and Balto-Finnic
languages still provide us with new research on personal vs. impersonal constructions. The need
to integrate modal constructions into the verbal paradigms, uncovering their link to TAM, and the
correlation between the modal constructions and grammatical category of person are areas that
demand far more coverage than they received in the essays in this volume. Despite these
limitations, this book is still a valuable reference tool for linguists interested in modals and modal
constructions beyond the well-researched constructions that are found in Germanic languages.


Werner Abraham (2002): “Modal Verbs: Epistemics in German and English.” In Sjef Barbiers, Frits
Beukema, and Wim van der Wurff (eds.) Modality and its Interaction with the Verbal System.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 19-50.

Werner Abraham and Elisabeth Leiss, eds. (2008): Modality-Aspect Interfaces. Implications and
Typological Solutions. Amsterdam: John Ben¬jamins.

Jennifer Coates (1983): The Semantics of the Modal Auxiliaries. London: Croom Helm.

Gabriele Diewald (1999): Die Modalverben im Deutschen. Grammatikalisierung und
Polyfunktionaliät. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Manfred Krug (2000): Emerging English Modals. A Corpus-Based Study of Grammaticalization.
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Stella Gevorgyan-Ninness is the author of a book on modality and aspect in German, Russian, and Armenian, Die Herausbildung des epistemischen Ausdrucks im Deutschen, Russischen und Armenischen: Aspekt und Modalität (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005).

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