LINGUIST List 21.3478

Tue Aug 31 2010

Confs: Syntax, Pragmatics, Semantics/UK

Editor for this issue: Amy Brunett <>

        1.    Emmanuelle Labeau, Systematic Ambiguity of Modals in Interaction with Tense and Aspect

Message 1: Systematic Ambiguity of Modals in Interaction with Tense and Aspect
Date: 31-Aug-2010
From: Emmanuelle Labeau <>
Subject: Systematic Ambiguity of Modals in Interaction with Tense and Aspect
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Systematic Ambiguity of Modals in Interaction with Tense and Aspect

Date: 18-Apr-2011 - 20-Apr-2011 Location: Birmingham, United Kingdom Contact: Alda Mari

Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics; Semantics; Syntax

Meeting Description:

Panel 3: Systematic Ambiguity of Modals in Interaction with Tense and Aspect Alda Mari & Fabio Del Prete (IJN, CNRS/ENS/EHESS),

Theme and Purpose of the Panel:

The investigation of the interaction of modal and tenses across languages is currently a very lively topic in both the formal and descriptive literature. The main concern in ongoing research is how systematic polysemy of modals relates to the way they combine with tense and aspect. Systematic ambiguity of modals has been explained in the classical view (Lewis, 1975; Kratzer, 1981,1991) as originating from the type of the modal base selected in the context of utterance (circumstantial or epistemic). Moreover, the classical view has assumed that modal statements are evaluated w.r.t. a world of evaluation which is the actual world. Recent work on tense and modals, in particular on modals in the past, has highlighted other forms of systematic ambiguity between the epistemic, abilitative and metaphysic interpretations. Grossly, the proposed accounts divide into three categories:

1. Syntactic views. Different interpretations are claimed to derive from different scope relations between functional heads (Demirdarche, 2005; Hacquard, 2006, Laca, 2008; Soare, 2009).

2. Lexical views. The interpretations that modals can have depend on the meaning of the tenses under which they are embedded and which vary across languages (Boogaar, 2005; Martin, 2009)

3. Pragmatic views. Some of the meanings are part of the semantics of the modals, others are derived by inferences (Mari, 2010; Mari and Schweitzer, 2010).

These recent views have raised a number of questions of fundamental importance for the study of modality in general: Firstly, while these views are not incompatible with the initial claim that different modal bases are needed, the question arises how these modal bases are selected. Some authors supplement the syntactic scope differences with claims about events upon which modals attach and which trigger different modal bases (Hacquard, 2006). Alternatively, other authors argue that what varies between different readings is not the type of the modal base, but the world of evaluation. This has lead some to revise the initial theory, rethinking the notion of proposition itself (whether a proposition is true in the actual world or just in a world - see Cappellen and Lepore 2005). Secondly, across these syntactic/semantic and pragmatic approaches, authors disagree as to whether epistemic modals can be interpreted in the past (von Fintel and Gillies, 2007; Condoravdi, 2001, Homer, 2009) or are always interpreted in the present (Stowell, 2004, Hacquard, 2006, Kratzer, 2009) and how the interpretation correlates with (i) the meaning of tenses (in particular the perfective / imperfective distinction) and (ii) the eventive / stative property of the embedded predicate. Thirdly authors have deeply reconsidered the traditional control raising distinction, which has also been adopted as an explanation of the systematic ambiguity of modals (e.g. Brennan, 2003; Tasmowski, 1980). However, the question of whether modals scope over a propositions or properties of events is not yet settled. While the issue has been investigated for deontic modality, it still deserves attention when it pertains to abilitative readings (Thomason, 2005).

The aim of the panel discussion is to bring together researchers from syntax semantics and pragmatics, investigating different strategies for deriving the systematic ambiguity across languages. It encourages work that brings new facts into light, systematizes old and new data and proposes new formal analyses in any type of framework. Comparative studies would be very much appreciated.

Scientific Committee:


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