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Review of  Modality, Subjectivity, and Semantic Change

Reviewer: Aynat Rubinstein
Book Title: Modality, Subjectivity, and Semantic Change
Book Author: Heiko Narrog
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 24.2942

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“Modality, subjectivity, and semantic change” marks the culmination of a decade of Heiko Narrog’s research, starting from his 2002 Tokyo University dissertation. It aims to advance our understanding of two complex and intertwined concepts, modality and subjectivity, through the careful examination of the historical development of modal markers cross-linguistically. The historical data that drive the analysis include examples from Japanese and Chinese, languages that are historically well documented, but seldom used to evaluate hypotheses about diachronic change. The discussion is explicitly intended to extend beyond the confines of particular theoretical frameworks. Although its orientation is largely functional-typological and historical, it makes a genuine attempt to integrate insights from formal semantic and syntactic research and the proposed theoretical model has parallels in the recent formal semantic literature.

The book is organized into an introduction, a conclusion, and six main chapters. It also contains an appendix in which prominent terminological choices in the literature on modality are presented side by side for comparison.

Chapter 1 (''Introduction'') presents the book’s goals and the theoretical approach assumed. Theoretically, it aims “to take a variety of currently influential perspectives on modality and subjectivity/subjectification into account, put their premises and implications on the table, evaluate them from the point of view of empirical and historical language research, and propose a synthesis” (p. 2). More practically, it sets to evaluate diverging hypotheses about the directionality of change in the modal domain in light of a wide range of data.

In Chapter 2 (“Modality and Subjectivity”), Narrog introduces modality, subjectivity, and the involvement of subjectivity in modality. He defines modality in terms of factuality, whereby “A proposition is modalized if it is marked for being undetermined with respect to its factual status, i.e. is neither positively nor negatively factual” (p. 6). Narrog recognizes nine subcategories that are arguably relevant for how modality is expressed in the world’s languages. These are: epistemic, deontic, teleological, preferential, boulomaic, participant-internal (ability, physical necessity), circumstantial, existential (quantificational), and evidential. (There is some vagueness about the intended place of the modality of desire, known as 'bouletic' or 'buletic', in this classification. More generally, the borders between the boulomaic, preferential, and teleological categories are not made sufficiently clear.) Subjectivity and intersubjectivity are given a performative interpretation, in relation to the current speech situation. Subjectivity is defined as speaker-oriented performativity, and intersubjectivity as hearer-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 is taken as given, and the model is thus presented as a two-dimensional model of modal meaning. Two-dimensional semantic maps are used throughout to represent the model graphically. Dimension (i) can be viewed as reflecting the familiar distinction between 'epistemic' and 'root' modality types, where epistemic, circumstantial and ability modalities are all classified as conceptually non-volitive. Volitive modalities are those that involve a degree of will (cf. Portner’s 2009 'priority' modalities). Dimension (ii), orientation, forms a continuum with event orientation and speech-act orientation at its poles. Speech-act orientation of a modal marker according to Narrog comes in three varieties: one implying attention to “the speaker’s own modal judgment at the time of speech”, one implying attention to the hearer, and one implying attention to discourse or textual context (p. 49). An event-oriented modal, in contrast, “expresses conditions on a participant of the described event or on the event as a whole, in relative independence of the speaker and the present speech situation” (p. 51).

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

Narrog presents his own model of semantic change, centered on the orientation dimension of modality. His central hypothesis is that semantic change of verbal categories is characterized by (i) category climbing, and (ii) increased speech-act orientation. At least for modals, an increase in speaker orientation is characteristic of early stages of semantic change, and an increase in hearer and discourse orientation is characteristic of more advanced stages. The model is argued to account more accurately and comprehensively for cross-linguistic tendencies of semantic change. In particular, it calls for a reconsideration of the familiar ‘deontic to epistemic’ hypothesis. Such a trajectory of change is supported, Narrog claims, only to the extent that it instantiates the overall tendency of change from 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 development of two ability-circumstantial modals: English ‘can’ and American Spanish ‘capaz’. Narrog then discusses cases in which modality is either the source or the target of change. The Japanese markers ‘be–’ and ‘–(a)m–/–(y)oo–’ exemplify change from modality into mood and illocutionary marking. Change from modality to illocutionary modification is also illustrated with the Hebrew epistemic adverb ‘’ulay’ “perhaps” and the Japanese particle ‘daroo’. A number of these examples do not fit the mold of development 'from deontic to epistemic', but all are shown to be consistent with the idea of an increase in speech-act orientation. Modality and mood as the targets of change are illustrated again with data from Modern and Old Japanese.

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

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

Attested shifts that find a natural interpretation in Narrog’s model are those from deontic modality to mood (imperative, hortative, prohibitive), from future or possibility to mood, and from ability to epistemic possibility. The author also discusses a number of less well-understood paths of change. The first is the development of (present-oriented) likelihood/probability meanings in future markers, as attested in the history of English ‘will’ and German ‘werden’ and ‘sollen’. A second challenging case concerns the development of subordinating moods. Focusing on the conditional concessive use of imperatives in Japanese, the author analyzes this development in terms of discourse/textual orientation, the degree of speech-act orientation associated with 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 reference to the results of a 200-language survey in Narrog’s earlier work. The topic is approached from three different perspectives.

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

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

3. Deontic-epistemic polysemy. To understand why certain languages attest this polysemy while others do not, Narrog investigates individual linguistic constructions that have been implicated in the deontic-epistemic meaning extension, the overall organization of modal systems, and finally also sociocultural factors. He concludes that lack of polysemy, at least in the case of Modern Japanese, is related to the presence of unambiguous epistemic modals and the lack of grammaticized deontic modals. He argues that many languages do not grammaticize modals of deontic and circumstantial necessity, and suggests that the social and cultural background in which a language is spoken may be responsible for this gap.

Chapter 7 (“Into (and Out of) Modality”) offers a glimpse into the grammatical categories that modal markers develop from, and those they develop into. As predicted by the category climbing hypothesis, voice (primarily passive, spontaneous/‘out of control’, and middle) is shown to be a source category for modality. It is hypothesized that negation and genericity play a role in bridging to the modal meaning. Similarly, historical extensions occur from possessive constructions to modality (specifically, to necessity or obligation; see also Bhatt 1998), but modal constructions “never [come] to denote possession as such” (p. 268). Aspect is predicted to be both a source and a target of modality, since it is typically located at about the same level as event-oriented modality in the hierarchy of the clause. Bi-directional diachronic development is discussed in relation to habitual and generic constructions that are sources of event-oriented possibility, verbs of motion and acquisition that come to develop modal and aspectual meaning, and the 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-act orientation, and semantic change typically results in category climbing in the syntax. While multiple and partly conflicting syntactic hierarchies have been proposed, Narrog’s claims target a coarse-grained hierarchy, which he takes to be common to all of them. A central conclusion is that certain traditionally assumed trajectories of change are not supported by cross-linguistic data. These include the unidirectional development from deontic to epistemic modality, change from possibility to necessity, and change from participant-internal to participant-external modality.

In the last paragraph, Narrog reflects on his overarching goal, “to provide a new overall model for modal meanings and semantic change in the area of verbal categories in general.” With extensive discussion of the grammaticalization paths of modal meanings on the one hand, and an eye to cross-linguistic generalizations on the other, the author delivers on this goal.

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

The main connection to formal semantics that I would like to point out concerns Narrog's orientation dimension of modal meaning. According to his proposal, this is the main axis along which modal meanings evolve, starting with event-oriented meanings and developing more speech-act-oriented meanings over time. Since it is also proposed that semantic change typically results in category climbing in the syntax, it follows that higher verbal categories are more speech-act oriented. This result recalls the split between VP-level and S-level modals in Hacquard's event-relative semantics of modality (2006 and subsequent work). Hacquard assumes that modals of different modality types occupy different positions in the hierarchy of the clause, proposes that they are relativized to events, and derives their properties by making reference to the event they are relativized to. Modals that are relativized to the speech event (for example, epistemics) have some of the semantic properties that Narrog associates with speech-act orientation. The two proposals differ in their theoretical assumptions and in other important details, but the shared intuitions they attempt to capture merit a close comparison.

Given the central role that orientation plays in the model, the concepts of event and speech-act orientation would have benefited from a more detailed introduction. (Relatedly, it is less than ideal that the term ''event orientation'' is mentioned in the text on p. 34 before it is defined on p. 49.) Without further explanation, the basis for fine-grained distinctions in orientation among notions like demand, intention, and appropriateness (Figure 4.5) remains unclear. A related comment concerns the assumed properties of different volitive modalities. What is the basis for the greater speech-act orientation attributed to preferential and deontic modalities in comparison to teleological modality, for example (p. 54)? This split between teleological and 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 a modal 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 merely optional and those in which it is necessary would have been helpful. These questions constitute an important avenue for further research.

Toward the end of the book, Narrog raises the important question of the diachronic relationship between modality and the two cartographically adjacent categories of voice and aspect. The interaction between these categories is a topic that has garnered considerable interest recently (for example, in the debate surrounding the source of 'actuality entailments' of modals in certain grammatical configurations). Before generalizations about directionality of diachronic development are attempted, however, it is necessary to rigorously delineate the boundaries between these categories. The very classification of a given marker as denoting voice or modality may be contentious, as in the case of 'out of control' marking discussed in Section 7.1.1. (Narrog treats the relevant marker in Thompson as denoting voice, but others have treated markers 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 of a marker and arguments showing that it 'climbs' up the tree become crucial. This kind of evidence is necessary in order to complete the argumentation in Chapter 7 about changes into and out of modality.

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

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

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

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

Davis, Henry, Lisa Matthewson, and Hotze Rullmann. 2009. ‘Out of control’ marking as circumstantial modality in St’át’imcets. In Cross-linguistic semantics of tense, aspect, and modality, eds. Hogeweg, Lotte, Helen de Hoop and 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 history of English (c750-1710). Wiley-Blackwell.

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

Yanovich, Igor. 2013.Variable-force modals on the British Isles: Semantic evolution of *motan. Slides of talk presented at Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) 23.
Aynat Rubinstein received a PhD in linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2012 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University. Her research interests are in formal semantics and the semantics-syntax interface, with a special interest in the interpretation of modals and other context dependent expressions.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199694372
Pages: 352
Prices: U.S. $ 125