LINGUIST List 12.2018
Fri Aug 10 2001
Review: Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.
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Sharbani Banerji, review of Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.
Message 1: review of Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.
Date: Thu, 9 Aug 2001 22: 55: 27 +0530
From: Sharbani Banerji < net">sharbevsnl. net>
Subject: review of Palmer, Mood and Modality, 2nd ed.
Palmer, Frank R. (2001) Mood and Modality, 2nd ed. Cambridge University
Press, hardback ISBN: 0-521-80035-8, xxi+236pp, $64. 95, Cambridge
Textbooks in Linguistics (1st ed. 1986; paperback ISBN: 0-521-80479-5).
Sharbani Banerji, Centre for Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies,
University Of Hyderabad, India.
This book is a typological study of Mood and Modality, and is the
second edition of the original volume, which was published in 1986.
Frank Palmer points out that the interest on Mood and modality, as well
as on grammatical typology in general, is quite a recent affair, and
has grown mostly after the publication of the first edition of the
This is confirmed by the fact that whereas the symposium of Mood and
modality held in the University of New Mexico in 1992 brought together
over forty researchers, and resulted in the publication of eighteen
papers (Bybee and Fleischmann 1995), yet, in contrast, a workshop on
modality at the International Congress of Linguistics only ten years
before had attracted only four scholars.
Modality is concerned with the status of the proposition that describes
the event, and is a cross-language grammatical category that can be
subject to typological study. Drawing upon data from a large number of
languages, Palmer proceeds very systematically in the typological study
of modality, proving at the very outset that grammatical typology
cannot be undertaken on the basis of purely formal grammatical marking.
It is thus done on the basis of 'notional' criteria. The term
'notional' is used by Palmer to avoid the debate about semantic vs..
pragmatic etc. Thus, this kind of work requires that various kinds of
modality be first identified, and then it needs to be checked how they
are represented in various languages. Though languages vary in the
categories that are treated as Realis or Irrealis, there is a lot of
similarity too, amongst widely different languages. Lot of questions
come to mind, which perhaps can be answered only when more detailed
work on 'Modality' is done on individual languages, so that
relationship of modality with other modules of grammar can be better
Thus, this work is useful for students, research scholars as well as
for professionals working on 'Modality', be in an individual language,
or as a typological study. The detailed classification of modality that
has been undertaken in this work, in fact, without which the
typological study wouldn't have been possible at all, is the most
valuable and the most essential guide to anybody who is working on
modality. There is a lot to learn about the methods of 'typological
study' from this book.
After the introductory chapter, the book is basically divided into two
parts. The first part, chapters 2, 3 & 4 is concerned with modal
systems. Chapter 2 deals with propositional modality, with main
sections on epistemic and evidential modality. Chapter 3 deals with
event modality, with main sections on deontic and dynamic modality.
Issues affecting both types of modality are considered in Chapter 4.
The second part, chapters 5, 6 & 7 is concerned with mood. Chapter 5
deals with indicative and subjunctive and chapter 6 with realis and
irrealis, while issues affecting them both are considered in chapter 7.
Chapter 8 deals with the issue of past tense being used as a modal.
INTRODUCTION: In the introduction, basic concepts are introduced. The
detailed analysis of each of the categories of 'Modality' are taken up
in the subsequent chapters. The difference between Realis and Irrealis,
which is fundamental to the concept of modality, is defined. For
example, whereas Realis portrays situations as actualized, knowable
through direct perception, the irrealis portrays situations as purely
within the realm of thought, knowable through imagination. However,
languages vary in the categories that are treated as Realis and
Irrealis; e.g., one language may mark commands as Irrealis and another
may mark them as Realis, while another may not treat them as a system
of modality at all. There are similar variations in the treatment of
futures, questions, denials, reports etc.
Many European languages use Indicative and subjunctive to distinguish
between Realis and Irrealis. However many authors treat the distinction
between indicative and subjunctive in terms of 'assertion' and 'non-
assertion'; e.g., Lunn 1995, suggests that a proposition may be
subjunctive for three reasons:
1) The speaker has doubts about it's veracity
2) The proposition is unrealized
3) The proposition is presupposed.
Mood and Modal systems:
There are two ways in which languages deal grammatically with an
overall category of modality:
i) modal system
Both may occur within a single language, e.g., in German, and in
Central Pomo. In most languages however, only one of these devices
seems to occur or one device is much more salient than the other.
Typically with mood, all or most clauses are either Realis or Irrealis:
the system is basically ('prototypically') binary. The indicative marks
clauses as Realis and subjunctive as Irrealis. In native American
languages and languages of Papua New Guinea, the distinction has been
made in terms of grammatical categories realis and irrealis, rather
than in terms of indicative and subjunctive. Strictly, there is no
typological difference between indicative/subjunctive and
realis/irrealis. Both make express the distinction between notional
features of realis and irrealis and can be seen as an instance of the
typological categories of Realis and Irrealis. However, there are some
differences in their distribution and syntactic functions. E.g.,
i) The subjunctive is found mainly in subordinate clauses
ii) Irrealis and realis often cooccur with other grammatical markers
iii) Both are often notionally redundant, but in different ways--
irrealis because of its concurrence with other markers, subjunctive,
because, in subordinate clauses, its occurrence is determined by the
type of complementizer.
iv) Unlike the indicative/subjunctive system, realis/irrealis systems
do not usually occur together with tense systems. In general, past and
present are marked as realis, future as irrealis.
Palmer admits that it is not always possible to draw a clear
distinction between mood and modal system, since, in some languages,
the overall system of modality has characteristics of both.
The Classification of Modality in Modal Systems:
Modality can be classified as Propositional Modality and Event
Modality. Propositional Modality can be of two types:
With epistemic modality the speakers express their judgements about the
factual status of the proposition, whereas with evidential modality
they indicate the evidence they have for its factual status. Thus,
epistemic modality can be: Speculative, Deductive or Assumptive.
Evidential categories can be: Sensory and Reported.
Event Modality in turn can be of two types: Deontic and Dynamic: With
Deontic modality, the conditioning factors are external to the relevant
individual, whereas with Dynamic modality they are internal. Thus
Deontic modality can be related to obligation or permission, emanating
from an external source, whereas Dynamic modality relates to ability or
willingness, which comes from the person concerned.
Thus the typological categories of Deontic are: Permissive &
Obligative. Commissive too is a type of Deontic modality. It is defined
by Searle as 'where we commit ourselves to do things', and is
exemplified by the English 'shall'.
The Dynamic modality are: Abilitive and Volitive.
Other Types of Modality: Presupposed propositions are treated as
irrealis, and many languages use subjunctive in the subordinate
clauses. Yet, examples of presupposed propositions being marked as
irrealis can be found in main clauses too, e.g., in Italian. Negatives
and Interrogatives being 'non-assertive', sometimes occur within the
modal systems or are marked as irrealis where there is marking of mood.
In European languages, though in main clauses they are never treated as
irrealis, there is evidence of such treatment in subordinate clauses.
Wishes and Fears express attitudes towards propositions whose factual
status is not known, or propositions that relate to unrealized events.
They are thus partly deontic and partly epistemic. Many languages mark
them as subjunctive in subordinate clauses, and some even in main
clauses, e.g., Latin and Classical Greek. Past tense can be used to
express 'unreality', 'tentativeness', 'potentiality' etc. This often
functions independently of 'mood', but may interact with it. Past tense
can also be used to express 'unreal conditional'. This use of past
tense is referred to as 'modal-past'. Other important categories that
may be marked as irrealis but are mostly found with mood are: Future,
Negative, Interrogative, Imperative-Jussive, Presupposed, Conditional,
Purposive and Resultative. Wishes (desiderative) and fears (timitive),
and less commonly habitual-past.
Ideally, there would be discreet systems of modal markers, such that
each of the typologically relevant modal systems was in a one-to-one
correspondence with a formal system in each language. In practice
however, the systems are not so orderly and simple. e.g.,
i) Two different systems may use the same (or most of the same set of
markers). E.g., in English, 'can' may be used as an epistemic, deontic
ii) In few cases notionally identical modal categories may be treated
as members of one system in one language and of another system in
another language. e.g., 'Deductive', may be a term in a judgement
system or in an evidential system as in English and Central Pomo
iii) A single formal system often contains forms that belong to two or
more modal systems. Thus in the German system of modal verbs, not only
do most of the modal verbs function as both epistemic and deontic, but
there are forms (sollen and wollen) that are clearly evidentials.
iv) There may not be a simple one-to-one relation between the terms of
a formal system and some of the typologically relevant notional
v) The same formal system may contain not only modal categories, but
others such as tense etc. In Ngiyambaa, there is a set of clitics that
relate to features that are clearly modal, and to others that are not.
The grammatical markers of modality are very varied. Basically, there
are three types of markers: i) Individual suffixes, clitics and
particles; ii) Inflection; iii) Modal verb.
MODAL SYSTEMS: PROPOSITIONAL MODALITY
This chapter deals with Propositional Modality in various languages.
Propositional Modality are of two types: Epistemic modality and
evidential modality. Epistemic Modality are of three types:
Speculative, Deductive, Assumptive.
English is one of the few languages which can express all the three
notions using the three modal verbs. E.g.,
i) John may be in his office (Speculative)
ii) John must be in his office (Deductive)
iii) John'll be in his office (Assumptive)
Similar contrast is found in Danish (Germanic), Italian (Romance),
modern Greek etc. It is also found in Tamil, in the form of verbal
suffixes. They are also found in Ngiyambaa, Imbabura, Inga, a variety
of Quechua, with finer shades of meaning.
The contrast between Deductive and Assumptive are found in a number of
other languages, but in most of them, Deductive and Assumptive occur
together in systems that include evidential markers of report and
sensation. e.g., Tuyuca, where the, markers correspond to the
typological categories Visual, Auditory, Deductive, Reported,
Assumptive etc. Similar contrasts are found in Wintu (N. California,
now almost extinct), and other languages, once again, with finer shades
In English, 'May' can be used as a concessive, i.e.,, in the sense of
He may be rich, but he is not very lucky.
He may have been rich, but he wasn't very lucky.
Similarly, German uses 'MOGEN'. Since with a concessive clause, the
speaker does not indicate doubt about the proposition, but rather
accepts it as true, in order to contrast one state of affairs with
another, 'May' is hence used here not as Speculative, but as
'Presupposed'. In Latin, Italian and Spanish, a subjunctive will be
Evidential categories are basically of two types, viz.,
Reported and Sensory. Ngiyambaa has just two 'evidence clitics'
(sensory and linguistic), but Central Pomo and Tuyuca have extended
evidential system, e.g., 'visual', 'non-visual', 'apparent', 'second
hand' and 'assumed'. Similarly, Hidatsa (Siouan, USA) has mood
morphemes at the clause final position expressing various shades of
extensive evidential system. Extensive evidential systems are found in
Native American languages, and some in Papuan languages. Similarly in
Examples of reported (e.g., 'second-hand', 'linguistic evidence',
'hearsay') etc are found in Tuyuca & Ngiyambaa & Fasu. Reported is also
found in languages that have a system of mood, but only where the
system is joint, i.e.,, where the grammatical markers of Realis and
Irrealis co-occur with
Grammatical markers of other categories. This suggests that these
categories are notionally 'realis'/'irrealis'. Thus 'reported' is
marked as 'irrealis' in Hixkaryana. Similar forms are found in
languages with predominantly judgmental systems, e.g., German and
There can be subcategories of 'Reported': e.g., 'second hand evidence',
'third hand evidence', 'evidence from folklore' etc. In some languages
like Lega, a distinction is made between a report that is reliable and
a report that is unreliable.
Just as in case of reported, whereas some languages have a single
category of Sensory, others have subcategories, e.g., visual and
auditory. Ngiyambaa has a clitic which is used for sensory evidence
involving all senses. Tuyuca has one marker for sight (visual) and
another for all other senses (non-visual). Central Pomo has separate
markers for both visual and auditory; similarly in the Papuan language
There are no attested examples of a specific marker for the senses
other than seeing and hearing.
Direct and indirect evidence
Some languages may have a single marker of modality to indicate either
what is said (report) or what may be inferred (deductive). e.g.,
Turkish, Sherpa, Abkhaz (N.W Caucasus) etc.
Palmer notes that Oswalt (1986: 43) says of evidentials in Kashaya that
they lie on a hierarchy:
performative > factual > visual > auditory > inferential > quotative =
Performative > Declarative > Visual > Auditory > Deductive > Reported.
Those that precede have priority over those that follow. Oswalt says
that the order seems to be universal, even for English, where
evidential concepts are expressed by verbs.
Interrogative and Negative are sometimes, found as members of an
epistemic modal system. e.g., in Menomini (Algonquian USA)
interrogative is a term in a modal system. Some languages use the same
marker for both Negative and interrogative, since these can be seen as
non-assertive. e.g., in Imbabura and Tiwi (Australia).
Discourse and participants
Modals have an important part to play in discourse, as the participants
express their opinions and attitudes and, in general interact with one
another. Cashibo has a full discourse system, and in particular forms
for making statements, asking questions, giving replies and giving
In Khezha (Tibeto-Burman-Kapfo, quoted by Bhat 1999: 80-1), there are
eight type of markers for Yes-No questions and eight for wh-questions,
the choice being largely related to the features of discourse. In some
languages there are systems indicating more direct reference to the
participants in the discourse.
It is generally the case that in languages with epistemic modal
systems, there is a form that is unmarked for modality, and which,
notionally, simply makes an unqualified assertion. It can thus be seen
as Realis, and the modal forms as Irrealis. This form is identified as
the Declarative. Thus for English, the declarative is marked by the
absence of a modal verb. Since the declarative is unmarked for
modality, it is not 'stronger' than a modal form. It simply asserts
without indicating the reasons for that assertion or the speaker's
commitment to it. It is perfectly possible for a speaker to say 'John
is in his office' without being wholly sure or when there is strong
evidence for it.
Again, it is perfectly possible to express modal notions without the
use of modal systems. This can be achieved through the use of lexical
verbs as in:
I think that Mary is in her office.
I saw John in his office this morning.
Grammatically, neither the first of these is an example of the modal
judgement Speculative, nor the second is an example of the Visual
evidential. They are both declaratives and the relevant notional
interpretation is in terms of asserting that 'I think' and that 'I
In terms of Realis vs. Irrealis, the declarative with no modal will be
a Realis, whereas the modal forms will be Irrealis. However, this
simple situation is not typical of all languages with modal systems.
There are several different situations.
In a few languages, the declarative is a term in the same formal system
as the modal categories. e.g., in Ngiyambaa (New South Wales,
Australia). Here past and present (declarative) occur in the same
system as markers of Speculative ('irrealis'), and Deductive
('purposive'), as well as imperative.
In Tuyuca, there is no formally or notionally unmarked Declarative,
because all the categories not only belong to a single formal system,
but also are all notionally evidential. The strongest evidential here
is Visual and closest to declarative.
Again, the declarative may not be the unmarked form. Thus in Huichol,
an unmarked form is usually taken as a question, while the declarative
has the assertive marker.
In some languages, there are both a 'weaker' and a 'stronger'
declarative. Thus Imbabura has forms for both 'emphatic first-hand
information' and 'first hand information'. In Ngiyambaa there are two
'belief' clitics, one representing assertion and the other categorial
assertion. Similarly in Hidatsa.
MODAL SYSTEMS: EVENT MODALITY
This chapter deals with Event Modality in different languages. Some of
the conclusions reached are as follows.
Deontic and Dynamic modality refer to events that are not actualized,
events that have not taken place, but are merely potential, and may
therefore be described as 'event modality'. With dynamic modality the
conditioning factors are external to the subject (that is he is
permitted, ordered etc to act), whereas with deontic modality they are
internal (that is he is able, willing etc to act).
Commissive (where the speaker guarantees that the action will take
place) may also be included under deontic modality.
The most common types of Deontic modality are the 'directives' where we
try to get others to do things. E.g.,
In English 'may'/'can' and 'must' express two kinds of directives
(which also express epistemic Speculative and Deductive).
You may/can go now. ----Permissive
You must go now. -----Obligative
Similar pairs of verbs or constructions can be found in other European
languages, e.g., German, Italian, Modern Greek French, Danish, North
Frisian etc. In Tamil, the suffixes -laam and -um are used as with
Commissive are signalled in English by the modal verb 'shall'. Here the
speaker commits himself to ensuring that the event takes place.
Past tense forms of some of the Deontic modals are used to weaken the
force of the modality. 'Must' has 'ought to' and 'should', and 'may'
and 'can' have 'might' and 'could' respectively. Notionally, 'should'
functions as the modified form of 'must'. 'ought to' and 'should' are
essentially conditional referring to what would occur or would have
Degrees of obligation are signalled in different ways in different
languages. Thus in Albanian, the 'must/should' contrast is marked by
different modal verbs.
There are two types of Dynamic modality, expressing ability and
willingness (Abilitive and Volitive), which are expressed in English by
'can' and 'will'. The modal verbs here can also be used for other types
In Lisu (Lolo-Burmese) there are distinct forms to indicate two types
of ability, one in the sense of 'knowing how', the other in the sense
of physical ability. There are three other types of dynamic
possibility, indicating freedom from taboo, no hindrance and having
Past tense and time
Past tense forms as with other modals can be used as 'modifications' to
express ability and willingness more tentatively, especially when
making an offer.
Imperative and jussive
Imperative and Jussive may belong to a modal system. Thus in Afar
(Cushitic----Ethiopia), there is in the same formal system
'imperative', 'jussive', 'subjunctive', and 'consultative'. All of
these could be regarded as 'deontic'--as examples of event modality,
relating to possible events in the future. In Ngiyambaa imperative is a
member of a mixed system. There are two kinds of imperative in a number
of North American languages. In Maidu (North California) Imperative I
is used when the action of the order is to be carried out in the
presence of the speaker, or when there is no interest in the place of
the ordered action.
Imperative II is used when the ordered action is to be carried out in
the absence of the speaker.
'Purposive' in Australian languages:
'Purposive' in Australian languages (e.g., in Ngiyambaa) expresses
obligation (and epistemic necessity) in main clauses. It can also be
used to suggest a result from an unknown cause. In subordinate clauses
the same marker is used for both purpose and result. It can also be
used to express 'natural result' or 'indirect command'. That is
'purposive' has many functions like the subjunctive in Latin, which can
also be used for purpose, result and indirect commands.
MODAL SYSTEMS AND MODAL VERBS:
This chapter deals with the similarities in the modal systems, the
modal verbs, and other categories.
The modal systems share a number of features not only in the system
themselves, but also for many languages, in the use of modal verbs and
the association with possibility and necessity. Notionally, epistemic
modality and deontic/dynamic modality seem to have a little in common,
yet, in English and many other languages the same form is used for both
types. e.g., the following can be interpreted epistemically or
He may come tomorrow.
The book should be on the shelf.
He must be in his office.
When the same verbs are used for the different types of modality, there
are often slight differences in the forms. But that doesn't explain why
the forms are basically the same. Even in a Dravidian language Tamil,
the two suffixes that are identified as 'permissive' and 'debitive',
are used for both epistemic and deontic modality. Similarly in
Ngiyambaaa, a single form may be used either deontically or
epistemically. Similar examples can be found in Tutatulabal, Cairene
Arabic, Abkhaz, Lao, Italian, Lisu etc. The explanation perhaps lies in
the notions of 'possibility' and 'necessity', which according to Lyons
(1977: 787), are the central notions of traditional modal logic. The
terms 'epistemic', 'deontic' and 'dynamic' are taken from a pioneering
work on modal logic by Von Wright (1951: 1-2, 28).
Thus epistemic Speculative and Deductive can be interpreted in terms of
what is epistemically possible and what is epistemically necessary.
John may be in his office.
=It is epistemically possible that John is in his office.
John must be in his office.
=It is epistemically necessary that John is in his office.
Similarly, deontic Permissive and Obligative can be interpreted in
terms of what is deontically possible and deontically necessary.
You may/can go now
=It is deontically possible for you to go now.
You must go now
=It is deontically necessary for you to go now.
The importance of possibility and necessity in the modal system is also
shown by the distribution of verbs in terms of negation.
Possibility, Necessity and Negation in English:
There are two different ways in which a modal expression may be
negated, as can be seen in the modal forms of epistemic possibility in
i) Mary may be at school.
ii) Mary may not be at school.
iii) Mary can't be at school.
The difference between the two types of negation can be explained with
the notions of possibility and necessity. ii) is to be interpreted as
'possible not', and iii) as 'not possible'. In ii), it is the
proposition which is negated, and in iii), it is the negation of
modality which is taking place.
Modal verbs are used in all four of the main types of modality that are
found in the modal systems-judgements, evidentials, deontic, and
dynamic (though to a very limited degree with evidentials).
Modal verbs in English
English has a set of modal verbs that can be formally defined. e.g.,
'may', 'can', 'must', 'ought to', 'will' and 'shall' and marginally
'need' and 'dare' (including might, could, would and should).
They are members of a larger set of auxiliary verbs, which occur with
negation, inversion, code, and emphatic affirmation. These are the
properties the modal verbs share with the auxiliary verbs 'be' and
'have'. They have the following additional features. E.g.,
i) Modal verbs do not cooccur;
ii) They do not have -s forms with 3rd person sg.,e.g., *he oughts to
iii) They have no non-finite forms;
iv) 'Must' has no morphologically past tense form, although the others
do. Of those, only 'could' is used to refer to past time;
v) There are suppletive negative forms;
vi) There are formal differences between the modal verbs in their
epistemic and deontic senses, in terms of negation and tense.
Modal verbs in other languages
Modal verbs exist in other languages too, viz., German, French other
Scandinavian languages, Romance languages, even in Mandarin Chinese,
and Cashibo (Peru). They have their idiosyncratic properties too
besides belonging to the grammatical system.
MODAL SYSTEMS AND OTHER CATEGORIES:
Most languages can be characterized as having either the modal system
or the mood. However, some languages have both, in two possible ways.
In a few languages that have a mood system with realis and irrealis
markers, the categories associated with irrealis may form a modal
system. e.g., Hixkaryana, Serrano, in which the categories marked as
irrealis clearly belong to an evidential system. But Central Pomo has a
system of evidentials which is independent of it's mood system.
Romance languages have a system of mood, marked by indicative and
subjunctive, but also have a set of modal verbs. However, the modal
verbs have not been fully grammaticalized, and in French and Italian,
subjunctive is losing ground. In English, the appearance of the modal
system (of modal verbs) has been accompanied by the disappearance of
the Anglo Saxon mood.
Thus, the two systems do not coexist in general, and if they do, one is
in time, replaced by the other.
'Will' and 'shall' are formally modal verbs, but are used to refer to
future time. They do not often indicate pure futurity, but are usually
associated with conditional futures. The connection between future and
modality can also be shown historically. There are also plenty of
examples of future tenses that are historically derived from
subjunctives, eg, some Latin forms. Other languages have future tenses
that have their origins in a modal type of auxiliary. It will be seen
that Future time is signalled by mood, both by the subjunctive and by
the irrealis. This too illustrates the 'potentially modal'
characteristics of future time reference.
The most important relationship between modality and negation is the
one that involves possibility and necessity. However, there are other
points to note too.
i) Negation, (also interrogatives) is involved in both modal system and
ii) Some languages have negative modal verbs, e.g., Latin and Welsh.
INDICATIVE AND SUBJUNCTIVE: This chapter deals with the various uses of
subjunctive in various languages. The category of mood, in European
languages particularly, is dealt with in terms of the distinction
between the indicative and the subjunctive. It is typically the mood
used in the subordinate clauses. Subjunctive can be used in main
clauses too. There are six different uses of subjunctive in main
clauses in Latin: Jussive ('Imperative'), Volitive (Optative),
Obligative (Jussive), Obligative (deliberative), Speculative
(potential), Presupposed concessive). Similar examples can be found in
Italian. Something similar is found in the West African language Fula.
Subjunctive in Subordinate clauses:
The distinction between the indicative and the subjunctive is
associated with assertion and non-assertion, and one of the reasons for
non-assertion is that the speaker has doubts about the veracity of the
Subjunctive is used to indicate what is reported. It can be used in
main clauses as well as in subordinate clauses, e.g. German. In
subordinate clauses subjunctive is used with verbs of reporting, and
belief, and mostly in past tense. Examples can be found in Italian,
Latin, Spanish etc. The most common association of Negative with
subjunctive is in subordinate clauses where the superordinate clause is
negated. In the main clause it is difficult to find a subjunctive with
Negation. Some examples can be found in Luvale (Bantu). In subordinate
clauses subjunctive is regularly used after negated verbs of belief and
report, e.g., Romance languages. The subjunctive is also used with
verbs of 'doubt' in the matrix clause, though not under negation. This
indicates that subjunctive is licensed in the subordinate clause not by
negation in the matrix clause, but by doubt. Interrogatives and
Negation often function in very similar ways, and together they can be
characterized as 'non-assertive'. Thus verbs of belief and saying in
interrogative form induce subjunctive in the subordinate in the
subordinate clause in Spanish, Italian, German. In Latin, subjunctive
is always required for indirect (reported) questions in Latin, though
the indicative is used in direct question. In Spanish, subjunctive is
used in the subordinate clause if it is presupposed. Similarly in
Futurity is marked as irrealis in languages in which mood is described
in terms of realis/irrealis. This is much less common with
indicative/subjunctive. In temporal clauses there is wide spread use of
subjunctive to refer to hypothetical future events. E.g., Classical
Greek and Spanish.
Subjunctive is used in a conditional clause in a number of languages.
In Spanish subjunctive is used for indefiniteness. Similarly in
Italian. The subjunctive is also used to express the deontic notions of
weak obligation (expressed in English by 'should', the modal past
equivalent of 'must'). Similarly, purposives are also marked with
subjunctive in many languages. Similarly for Wishes and fears,
Resultatives, Imperatives and jussives.
Subjunctive as Subordinator:
Though usually there is some notionally irrealis feature associated
with subjunctives, a subjuncive can sometimes be simply a marker of
subordination. e.g., Latin, Fula, Mangarayi (Australia).
CHAPTER VI REALIS & IRREALIS:
In this chapter, Palmer investigates the role of realis and irrealis
markers in varied languages. Following are some of the findings:
In many languages, particularly in Native American languages, and those
of Papua new Guinea, mood is described in terms of the grammatical
markers of realis and irrealis.
Although the distinction is the same as that between indicative and
subjunctive, both being markers of typological categories Realis and
Irrealis, there are sufficient differences. Yet there is not always a
clear distinction between them.
Joint and non-joint marking
There are basically two ways in which realis and irrealis markers
function. In some languages, their main function is to cooccur with
other grammatical categories. In others they mainly occur in isolation,
and are themselves the only markers of specific notional categories.
E.g., in Amele (Papuan) an irrealis marker is required whenever a
future marker is present in the sentence. But in Papuan language, the
irrealis marker is itself the indication of future.
According to Palmer then, the joint markers are those that cooccur
obligatorily with other grammatical markers. Both features may appear
in a single language.
In Caddo (Oklahoma), pronominal prefixes of the verb may be
distinguished as either realis or irrealis and the choice is determined
by the sets of grammatical markers that occur before these pronominal
prefixes. Irrealis prefixes are used in conjunction with grammatical
markers indicating negation, prohibition, obligation, conditional, etc
and also in conjunction with simulative, infrequentative and admirative
prefixes. The Caddo system is then predominanatly JOINT.
The NON-JOINT system is found in Manam (Papuan). The system here is
binary. That is, every finite verb must be specified by means of a
subject/mood prefix for one of the two moods. Realis is used for i)
past events ii) present events & iii) habitual events. Irrealis is used
for i) future events ii) commands, exhortations and warnings iii)
counterfactual events iv) sequences of customary and habitual events.
Realis/Irrealis marking is also to be found in subordinate clauses,
both oblique clauses and complement clauses (in the same way as
indicative/subjunctive). e.g., in mojave the irrealis suffix appears on
subordinate verbs to mark unreal or hypothetical situations: desires,
conditionals, obligations, counterfactuals, and occassional futures.
In some languages there are also forms that are unmarked for mood.
e.g., In Papuan language Amele, mood is marked only on linked
constructions with different subjects. Where there are the same
subjects the construction is unmarked for mood.
There can be wider systems too. E.g., the 'future' 'irrealis' in Kiowa
has a number of uses that are associated with irrealis in other
languages, but clearly it does not belong to a binary system or even a
trinary system (of realis, irrealis and unmarked). Thus there are
languages with an 'irrealis' form with several functions. e.g.,
Maricopa, Mao Naga (Tibeto Burman) etc.
In Complex Systems like Hixkaryana, there appears to be both an
evidential modal system and a system of Realis/Irrealis mood. Mood is
indicated by a non-past and a non-past 'uncertain' form of the verb,
which can be seen as realis and irrealis. In some languages, the
irrealis marker is used, without any other grammatical marker, to
indicate a question. e.g., Caddo, Hixkaryana, Serrano, etc.
Interrogative and Negative are often considered together because they
appear to function in similar ways, as in English, where they are both
subsumed under 'non-asertion'.
There are similarities between them w. r. t. realis and irrealis
marking. e.g., In Caddo, Mesa Grande Diegueno, Alamblak etc., negatives
like interrogatives co-occur with irrealis. There are several instances
of the use of irrealis with categories or expressions that are
notionally to some degree negative. Thus the infrequentative co-occurs
with irrealis in Caddo. In Kiowa, irrealis may indicate that an action
might have occurred but did not. Similar examples can be found in other
languages too, e.g., Nakanai, Mao Naga etc. Reported, Presupposed,
Conditionals etc can be marked as Irrealis in certain languages.
In Bargam (Papua), habitual past is marked irrealis. Though past time
reference is marked realis, the habitual past is not, because it does
not relate to specific actions of the past, but to a tendency to act.
Similar examples may be found in Kashaya, Tolkapaya Yavapai, Manam etc.
In Central Pomo, Sursurunga, imperatives and jussives occur with
irrealis. Similarly in Takelma. In Kiowa, prohibitive is marked
irrealis but not imperative.
A number of languages make a distinction between 'strong' and 'polite'
commands (imperative and jussive) by means of realis/irrealis making.
e.g., in Alamblak,
Nakanai, Jamul Diego etc. In European languages the polite commands are
expressed by the subjunctive. In Italian and Spanish even a greater
politeness is achieved by using the third person form in addition to
Obligative and Abilitive may be marked with an irrealis marker in some
CHAPTER VII SUBJUNCTIVE AND IRREALIS
This chapter deals with the similarities and differences between
Subjunctive and Irrealis.
The terms indicative & subjunctive are traditional terms used in the
description of classical and modern languages of Europe, though they
have been used for other languages too. The terms realis/irrealis were
first used in the description of Australian language Maung. These terms
have also been used for Native American languages and those of Pacific,
particularly, those of Papua New Guinea.
Mood in the European languages is a morphosyntactic category closely
integrated with person, number tense and voice. That is, it is part of
the inflectional system.
Mood in the realis/irrealis system is often marked by single words or
individual affixes or clitics, though there are exceptions too.
One similarity is that both subjunctive and irrealis markers are often
redundant, in that the notional irrealis feature is already marked
somewhere in the sentence. But the difference is that a subjunctive is
redundant only in the subordinate clause, where the subordinating verb
clearly marks the notional feature. By contrast, an irrealis marker
Commonly occurs in main clauses, where it co-occurs with a grammatical
marker that is notionally irrealis.
At first sight, the notional features associated with subjunctive and
with irrealis may appear different, but only if their functions in main
clauses are considered. For the notions associated with the subjunctive
in main clauses do not include question, denial or futurity (except
While these are commonly associated with irrealis. However, in
subordinate clauses, these notional features are often associated with
subjunctive, often redundantly. However, both irrealis and subjunctive
are used to indicate what is presupposed.
The fundamental question is whether the distinction between Realis and
Irrealis in terms of mood, is a coherent and a homogenous category that
has typological validity. This is disputed by Bybee et al. 1994. There
appears to be four main arguments:
i) The distinction is rarely realized in a language as a simple binary
ii) Irrealis and Subjunctive markers are often semantically redundant
in that the meaning is carried by some other element in the context.
iii) There is a great variation in the notional features marked by
them, which makes it difficult to circumscribe a focal meaning for
iv) Some of the notional features appear to be wholly inappropriate.
Palmer discusses these arguments at length and doesn't agree with them
PAST TENSE AS MODAL
Past tense has a modal function expressing 'unreality'. 'Unreality'
indicates some degree of lack of confidence by the speaker. Instead of
using the term 'unreal', 'modal-tense' is used.
Examples of Unreal Conditions are conditional sentences.
In English, there is a contrast between
If John comes, Bill will leave.
If John came Bill would leave.
These are examples of a real and an unreal conditional sentence. With
the unreal conditional, the speaker indicates some doubt about the
likelihood of the event indicated in the protasis (John's coming),
whereas with the real conditional the possibility is left open. The
real conditional is expressed by present tense verbs and unreal by past
Examples of this use of tense for unreality can be found in other
languages. Thus in Classical Greek the imperfect indicative is used in
both clauses for present unreal conditional. For past unreal conditions
it uses the aorist, instead of the imperfect. However where there is
clear future reference, real conditionals use the subjunctive (or the
future) in the protasis and the future in the apodosis, and the unreal
conditionals use the optative in both.
There is a similar use of tense to mark unreality in the Ethiopian
Semitic languages Tigre and Tigrinya, spoken in Eritrea. Similarly in
Cushitic language Bilin, unreality is marked by past tense.
Marking by Tense and Mood:
Often unreal conditions are marked by both mood and past tense. For
unreal conditionals in the present, Latin uses the imperfect
subjunctive in both clauses. For unreal conditionals with clear future
reference, it has present subjunctive in both clauses. For unreal
conditionals in the past, Latin uses a more remote past marker, the
pluperfect, but still with the subjunctive. German has imperfect
subjunctive in the protasis but either the imperfect subjunctive or the
'conditional tense' in the apodosis. However, the 'conditional' tense
is in fact, formed by the imperfect subjunctive of the modal WERDEN,
which often marks the future. Spanish also uses 'conditional tenses'
and has either the imperfect subjunctive or the conditional in the
protasis, but the conditional or the conditional subjunctive in the
Wishes also use past tense forms. Thus Classical Greek uses the
optative, the imperfect and the aorist for future, present and past
wishes respectively. Similar examples can be found in Latin. English
like Classical Greek, sometimes uses an expression that contains the
conditional conjunction '-if only'. More commonly it uses the lexical
verb 'WISH'. As with conditionals past tense forms are used, but for
wishes for the future, 'would' or 'could' are normally used.
There are other ways in which the past tense is associated with the
subjunctive. In Russian, for instance, what is called subjunctive,
consists in fact of the particle -by plus the past tense. This is used
in several constructions where the subjunctive would be used in other
Naturally, the modal function of past tense can occur only in languages
that have a tense system that differentiates past from present or non-
past. It does not occur in languages such as Papua new Guinea, that
deal with time relations within the category of Realis/Irrealis mood.
Bhat (1999: 144) sees the use of past tense for unreal conditionals as
a characteristic of 'tense prominent' languages, as distinguished from
those that are aspect prominent or mood prominent.
Palmer poses the obvious question: 'why is past tense, or forms
associated with past time so widely used to express this type of
He discusses the explanations given by different authors, viz., Joos
1964, Steele 1975, Bybee 1995 etc. However, the explanations are not
sufficient to explain all kinds of data.
The volume establishes beyond doubt the status of 'Modality' as a
However, a typological study cannot be an end in itself. Major
questions come to mind, which can be answered only if detailed
syntactic analysis of modality is carried out for each language
separately, and comparisons made between different languages at that
level. Such a work would be more explanatory and more enlightening. For
example, one would like to know,
1) If typologically there is no distinction between
indicative/subjunctive system and realis/irrealis system, how do we
explain the structural differences between the two systems?
2) Admitting that the grammatical markers of modality are very varied,
one would like to ask, if there is any similarity between them at the
structural level, i.e., in the narrow syntax.
3) Can a declarative be treated as part of the modal system in all
languages, in spite of the fact that in most languages they are not
overtly specified for modality?
4) How can we represent the modality of discourse?
5) How do we explain the variation amongst languages with regard to
what is treated as Irrealis?
Though it is not at all customary, in my opinion, if books on
typological study too include syntactic analysis of at least one of the
languages referred to in the study, (for example, it could have been
English in this case, since a large part of the data comprises of
English data), it would give opportunity to others to work on other
languages and to do a comparative syntactic study at the same time.
Bhat, D. N. S. (1999) The prominence of tense, aspect and mood (Studies
in Language Companion Series 49).Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.
Bybee, Joan, Revere D. Perkins, and William Pagliuca. (1994) The
evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect and modality in the languages of the
world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bybee, Joan, and Suzanne Fleischmann, eds. (1995) Modality and grammar
in discourse (Typological studies in Language 32.) Amsterdam and
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Joos, Martin (1964) The English verb: form and meanings. Madison and
Milwaukee: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Lunn, Patricia V. (1995) The evaluative function of the Spanish
subjunctive. In Bybee and Fleischmann 1995:419-49.
Searle, John R. (1983) Intentionality. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Steele, Susan (1975) Past and irrealis: just what does it all mean?
International Journal of American Linguistics 41: 200-17.
Von Wright, E. H. (1951): An essay in modal logic. Amsterdam: North
SHARBANI BANERJI has submitted her PhD thesis at the Centre for Applied
Linguistics and Translation Studies, University Of Hyderabad, India.
Earlier she did her M. Phil and M. A Linguistics from JawaharLal Nehru
University, New Delhi. Her research interests include Syntax, Semantics
and their application in Computational Linguistics. Presently she is
working on her book 'Bangla Syntax'. She is looking for work on a (Long
Distance) Lexicon Project.