LINGUIST List 24.2942

Fri Jul 19 2013

Review: Pragmatics; Semantics; Typology: Narrog (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 10-Jun-2013
From: Aynat Rubinstein <>
Subject: Modality, Subjectivity, and Semantic Change
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Heiko NarrogTITLE: Modality, Subjectivity, and Semantic ChangeSUBTITLE: A Cross-Linguistic PerspectivePUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Aynat Rubinstein, Georgetown University

“Modality, subjectivity, and semantic change” marks the culmination of adecade of Heiko Narrog’s research, starting from his 2002 Tokyo Universitydissertation. It aims to advance our understanding of two complex andintertwined concepts, modality and subjectivity, through the carefulexamination of the historical development of modal markerscross-linguistically. The historical data that drive the analysis includeexamples from Japanese and Chinese, languages that are historically welldocumented, but seldom used to evaluate hypotheses about diachronic change.The discussion is explicitly intended to extend beyond the confines ofparticular theoretical frameworks. Although its orientation is largelyfunctional-typological and historical, it makes a genuine attempt to integrateinsights from formal semantic and syntactic research and the proposedtheoretical model has parallels in the recent formal semantic literature.

SUMMARYThe book is organized into an introduction, a conclusion, and six mainchapters. It also contains an appendix in which prominent terminologicalchoices in the literature on modality are presented side by side forcomparison.

Chapter 1 (''Introduction'') presents the book’s goals and the theoreticalapproach assumed. Theoretically, it aims “to take a variety of currentlyinfluential perspectives on modality and subjectivity/subjectification intoaccount, put their premises and implications on the table, evaluate them fromthe point of view of empirical and historical language research, and propose asynthesis” (p. 2). More practically, it sets to evaluate diverging hypothesesabout the directionality of change in the modal domain in light of a widerange of data.

In Chapter 2 (“Modality and Subjectivity”), Narrog introduces modality,subjectivity, and the involvement of subjectivity in modality. He definesmodality in terms of factuality, whereby “A proposition is modalized if it ismarked for being undetermined with respect to its factual status, i.e. isneither positively nor negatively factual” (p. 6). Narrog recognizes ninesubcategories that are arguably relevant for how modality is expressed in theworld’s languages. These are: epistemic, deontic, teleological, preferential,boulomaic, participant-internal (ability, physical necessity), circumstantial,existential (quantificational), and evidential. (There is some vagueness aboutthe intended place of the modality of desire, known as 'bouletic' or'buletic', in this classification. More generally, the borders between theboulomaic, preferential, and teleological categories are not made sufficientlyclear.) Subjectivity and intersubjectivity are given a performativeinterpretation, in relation to the current speech situation. Subjectivity isdefined as speaker-oriented performativity, and intersubjectivity ashearer-oriented performativity.

The chapter culminates with a proposal of a new model of modality and mood.Narrog describes modality using three dimensions: (i) volition, (ii)orientation (speech-act orientation or event orientation), and (iii)force/strength (necessity or possibility in his terms). The third dimension istaken as given, and the model is thus presented as a two-dimensional model ofmodal meaning. Two-dimensional semantic maps are used throughout to representthe model graphically. Dimension (i) can be viewed as reflecting the familiardistinction between 'epistemic' and 'root' modality types, where epistemic,circumstantial and ability modalities are all classified as conceptuallynon-volitive. Volitive modalities are those that involve a degree of will (cf.Portner’s 2009 'priority' modalities). Dimension (ii), orientation, forms acontinuum with event orientation and speech-act orientation at its poles.Speech-act orientation of a modal marker according to Narrog comes in threevarieties: one implying attention to “the speaker’s own modal judgment at thetime of speech”, one implying attention to the hearer, and one implyingattention to discourse or textual context (p. 49). An event-oriented modal, incontrast, “expresses conditions on a participant of the described event or onthe event as a whole, in relative independence of the speaker and the presentspeech situation” (p. 51).

Chapter 3 (“Modality and Semantic Change”) opens with an overview of basicconcepts and terms relating to how linguistic meanings change over time. Theauthor presents the types of semantic change described in the literature,mechanisms of change (with a focus on implicatures, and the reanalysis orconventionalization of the novel interpretations they give rise to), contextsof change, motivations for change, and the (uni)directionality of change.

Narrog presents his own model of semantic change, centered on the orientationdimension of modality. His central hypothesis is that semantic change ofverbal categories is characterized by (i) category climbing, and (ii)increased speech-act orientation. At least for modals, an increase in speakerorientation is characteristic of early stages of semantic change, and anincrease in hearer and discourse orientation is characteristic of moreadvanced stages. The model is argued to account more accurately andcomprehensively for cross-linguistic tendencies of semantic change. Inparticular, it calls for a reconsideration of the familiar ‘deontic toepistemic’ hypothesis. Such a trajectory of change is supported, Narrogclaims, only to the extent that it instantiates the overall tendency of changefrom event orientation to speech-act orientation.

In the following chapter (“Illustrating the Model: Some Case-Studies”),semantic change within modality is illustrated with the historical developmentof two ability-circumstantial modals: English ‘can’ and American Spanish‘capaz’. Narrog then discusses cases in which modality is either the source orthe target of change. The Japanese markers ‘be–’ and ‘–(a)m–/–(y)oo–’exemplify change from modality into mood and illocutionary marking. Changefrom modality to illocutionary modification is also illustrated with theHebrew epistemic adverb ‘’ulay’ “perhaps” and the Japanese particle ‘daroo’. Anumber of these examples do not fit the mold of development 'from deontic toepistemic', but all are shown to be consistent with the idea of an increase inspeech-act orientation. Modality and mood as the targets of change areillustrated again with data from Modern and Old Japanese.

Whether the case studies presented in Chapter 4 are representative ofcross-linguistic patterns is the focus of the following chapters.

In Chapter 5 (“Cross-Linguistic Patterns of Polysemy and Change withinModality and Mood”), Narrog analyzes the findings of Bybee et al.’s 1994cross-linguistic survey of historical changes in the domain of modality. Heargues that in the 78 languages surveyed there, the overall direction ofchange was upward, towards more speech-act orientation. Deontic-to-epistemicmeaning extensions were rare in the sample.

Attested shifts that find a natural interpretation in Narrog’s model are thosefrom deontic modality to mood (imperative, hortative, prohibitive), fromfuture or possibility to mood, and from ability to epistemic possibility. Theauthor also discusses a number of less well-understood paths of change. Thefirst is the development of (present-oriented) likelihood/probability meaningsin future markers, as attested in the history of English ‘will’ and German‘werden’ and ‘sollen’. A second challenging case concerns the development ofsubordinating moods. Focusing on the conditional concessive use of imperativesin Japanese, the author analyzes this development in terms ofdiscourse/textual orientation, the degree of speech-act orientation associatedwith late or very final stages of semantic change.

Chapter 6 (“Shifts between Types of Modality in Traditional Terms”)investigates instigators of change in the meaning of modals, making referenceto the results of a 200-language survey in Narrog’s earlier work. The topic isapproached from three different perspectives.

1. Historical changes in the force of modals. The change from possibility tonecessity is well documented and considered uncontroversial (a famous exampleis *motan, the predecessor of ‘must’; but see Yanovich 2013). Developments inthe opposite direction have been a topic of debate. Narrog reviews thehistorical trajectories of relevant examples, concluding that weakening fromnecessity to possibility exists and seems to involve interaction withnegation, a “magnet for possibility readings with modal markers” (p .194), andcontexts in which the verb embedded under the modal is a verb of thinking orcommunication. It remains largely an open question why changes in force haveup to now only been observed in volitive modals.

2. Participant-internal and participant-external modalities. Possibilitymodals in Indo-European languages have motivated the view that ability(participant-internal) meanings serve as the basis for extension to permissionand circumstantial possibility (participant-external) meanings, but not viceversa. Narrog argues against this view, citing Thai and Japanese possibilitymodals that have developed ability meanings late in their history. He furtherpoints out a puzzling interaction with force. In the domain of necessity,there are no known examples of an ability-to-deontic like development. Ifanything, change proceeds from externally-driven (or deontic) necessity tointernally-driven necessity in certain cases (e.g., ‘need’ and itspredecessors; Loureiro-Porto 2009).

3. Deontic-epistemic polysemy. To understand why certain languages attest thispolysemy while others do not, Narrog investigates individual linguisticconstructions that have been implicated in the deontic-epistemic meaningextension, the overall organization of modal systems, and finally alsosociocultural factors. He concludes that lack of polysemy, at least in thecase of Modern Japanese, is related to the presence of unambiguous epistemicmodals and the lack of grammaticized deontic modals. He argues that manylanguages do not grammaticize modals of deontic and circumstantial necessity,and suggests that the social and cultural background in which a language isspoken may be responsible for this gap.

Chapter 7 (“Into (and Out of) Modality”) offers a glimpse into the grammaticalcategories that modal markers develop from, and those they develop into. Aspredicted by the category climbing hypothesis, voice (primarily passive,spontaneous/‘out of control’, and middle) is shown to be a source category formodality. It is hypothesized that negation and genericity play a role inbridging to the modal meaning. Similarly, historical extensions occur frompossessive constructions to modality (specifically, to necessity orobligation; see also Bhatt 1998), but modal constructions “never [come] todenote possession as such” (p. 268). Aspect is predicted to be both a sourceand a target of modality, since it is typically located at about the samelevel as event-oriented modality in the hierarchy of the clause.Bi-directional diachronic development is discussed in relation to habitual andgeneric constructions that are sources of event-oriented possibility, verbs ofmotion and acquisition that come to develop modal and aspectual meaning, andthe combination of modality and aspect in the meaning of prospective aspect.

The book concludes (Chapter 8) with a summary of the study’s main claims:diachronic change of verbal categories proceeds toward increased speech-actorientation, and semantic change typically results in category climbing in thesyntax. While multiple and partly conflicting syntactic hierarchies have beenproposed, Narrog’s claims target a coarse-grained hierarchy, which he takes tobe common to all of them. A central conclusion is that certain traditionallyassumed trajectories of change are not supported by cross-linguistic data.These include the unidirectional development from deontic to epistemicmodality, change from possibility to necessity, and change fromparticipant-internal to participant-external modality.

EVALUATIONIn the last paragraph, Narrog reflects on his overarching goal, “to provide anew overall model for modal meanings and semantic change in the area of verbalcategories in general.” With extensive discussion of the grammaticalizationpaths of modal meanings on the one hand, and an eye to cross-linguisticgeneralizations on the other, the author delivers on this goal.

The book's empirical contribution stems from its focus on historicallywell-documented but less extensively studied modal systems, in particular thatof Japanese. It is rich with data that will be new to many researchers. Thisnew data, however, is only one pillar among the broader cross-linguisticfoundations of the book. There is extensive discussion of previous work ongrammaticalization of modality (e.g., Bybee et al.'s seminal study, now almosttwenty years old), which the author presents in an accessible way and attemptsto integrate into his model. Theoretically, the proposal is consistent withgenerative syntactic theory and also has clear connections to recent work informal semantics. It is therefore likely to help bridge gaps that existbetween different theoretical frameworks in which modality is studied.

The main connection to formal semantics that I would like to point outconcerns Narrog's orientation dimension of modal meaning. According to hisproposal, this is the main axis along which modal meanings evolve, startingwith event-oriented meanings and developing more speech-act-oriented meaningsover time. Since it is also proposed that semantic change typically results incategory climbing in the syntax, it follows that higher verbal categories aremore speech-act oriented. This result recalls the split between VP-level andS-level modals in Hacquard's event-relative semantics of modality (2006 andsubsequent work). Hacquard assumes that modals of different modality typesoccupy different positions in the hierarchy of the clause, proposes that theyare relativized to events, and derives their properties by making reference tothe event they are relativized to. Modals that are relativized to the speechevent (for example, epistemics) have some of the semantic properties thatNarrog associates with speech-act orientation. The two proposals differ intheir theoretical assumptions and in other important details, but the sharedintuitions they attempt to capture merit a close comparison.

Given the central role that orientation plays in the model, the concepts ofevent and speech-act orientation would have benefited from a more detailedintroduction. (Relatedly, it is less than ideal that the term ''eventorientation'' is mentioned in the text on p. 34 before it is defined on p.49.) Without further explanation, the basis for fine-grained distinctions inorientation among notions like demand, intention, and appropriateness (Figure4.5) remains unclear. A related comment concerns the assumed properties ofdifferent volitive modalities. What is the basis for the greater speech-actorientation attributed to preferential and deontic modalities in comparison toteleological modality, for example (p. 54)? This split between teleologicaland other priority-type modalities is not elaborated on but is intriguing,since the two categories are often considered to be conceptually very similar.

Narrog is careful to note that an increase in speech-act orientation of amodal marker may, but need not, be accompanied by an increase in(morphological, syntactic, and phonological) grammaticalization (pp. 108-9).An analysis of the circumstances in which grammaticalization is merelyoptional and those in which it is necessary would have been helpful. Thesequestions constitute an important avenue for further research.

Toward the end of the book, Narrog raises the important question of thediachronic relationship between modality and the two cartographically adjacentcategories of voice and aspect. The interaction between these categories is atopic that has garnered considerable interest recently (for example, in thedebate surrounding the source of 'actuality entailments' of modals in certaingrammatical configurations). Before generalizations about directionality ofdiachronic development are attempted, however, it is necessary to rigorouslydelineate the boundaries between these categories. The very classification ofa given marker as denoting voice or modality may be contentious, as in thecase of 'out of control' marking discussed in Section 7.1.1. (Narrog treatsthe relevant marker in Thompson as denoting voice, but others have treatedmarkers of this kind in closely related languages as modal; see Davis et al.2009.)

It is precisely in this context that evidence about the syntactic position ofa marker and arguments showing that it 'climbs' up the tree become crucial.This kind of evidence is necessary in order to complete the argumentation inChapter 7 about changes into and out of modality.

Overall, Narrog's writing is engaging and the organization of the book islogical and clear. This makes it an exceptionally accessible read and areference text that is easy to navigate on a second and third reading.Examples are generally provided with complete glosses and presentedstrategically as means of advancing the argumentation. One disappointingaspect concerns the copyediting of the text, which regrettably contains manydistracting typos and errors. (The list I compiled is too long to be includedin this review, but will be communicated to the author.)

In sum, the book contains a wealth of cross-linguistic observations, athought-provoking synthesis of theoretical proposals, and many questions forfurther research. It is an invaluable resource for any student or researcherwith an interest in modality, grammaticalization, and the interplay of grammarand context in the evolution of language.

REFERENCESBhatt, Rajesh. 1998. Obligation and possession. In Papers from the UPenn/MITroundtable on argument structure and aspect, ed. Heidi Harley. MITWPL, 21-40.

Bybee, Joan, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca. 1994. The evolution ofgrammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Universityof Chicago Press.

Davis, Henry, Lisa Matthewson, and Hotze Rullmann. 2009. ‘Out of control’marking as circumstantial modality in St’át’imcets. In Cross-linguisticsemantics of tense, aspect, and modality, eds. Hogeweg, Lotte, Helen de Hoopand Andrej Malchukov. John Benjamins, 205-244.

Hacquard, Valentine. 2006. Aspects of modality. Doctoral Dissertation, MIT.

Loureiro-Porto, Lucía. 2009. The semantic predecessors of need in the historyof English (c750-1710). Wiley-Blackwell.

Portner, Paul. 2009. Modality. Oxford University Press.

Yanovich, Igor. 2013.Variable-force modals on the British Isles: Semanticevolution of *motan. Slides of talk presented at Semantics and LinguisticTheory (SALT) 23.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERAynat Rubinstein received a PhD in linguistics from the University ofMassachusetts Amherst in 2012 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in theDepartment of Linguistics at Georgetown University. Her research interests arein formal semantics and the semantics-syntax interface, with a specialinterest in the interpretation of modals and other context dependentexpressions.

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