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PostPosted: Thu Dec 04, 2003 10:44 pm 
Today I'm going to talk about a grammatical concept called "modality". We're all familiar with tense--it's how you express when the action referred to with a verb happened (it's actually a bit more complicated than that--there's the whole issue of "aspect"--but that's irrelevant right now). Modality is a bit less clear. Roughly, it expresses the speaker's confidence in a verb. It encompasses two related concepts: mood and mode.

In English, we don't think about mood that much. Most of what we say is in one mood. We do have mood constructions, but they rely on shifting word order rather than inflecting a verb--e.g. the imperative mood: "Run away!". In other languages, mood is more prominent, and verbs may inflect for it. People who have studied Spanish may have stumbled upon the strange-seeming "subjunctive" form of verbs--this is a mood.

Mood can be boiled down to a two-way distinction between Realis and Irrealis. Realis means that the speaker is asserting that the action referred to by the verb really happened/is happening/will happen. Irrealis means that the speaker is not asserting that. This is not the same as asserting that it is not true--that's called negation (although some languages do treat negated verbs as a kind of Irrealis). "Indicative" and "subjunctive" moods are how some languages express Realis and Irrealis (respectively). Imperatives are also notionally Irrealis (the desired action may or may not happen) but are a little more specific. There are other possible moods, like optative (Ancient Greek has this one) which expresses a hope or wish (and is considered Irrealis). Most moods other than indicative are considered Irrealis.

Mode, which can be understood roughly as "the sort of thing the English modal verbs like may, must, and can are used for", is itself divided into two basic categories, which can be divided further: propositional modality and event modality. Propositional modality expresses the strength of a conclusion. Event modality expresses the forces (societal and internal) acting on the subject to perform the action.

Propositional modality comes in two types: epistemic modality and evidential modality. Epistemic modality is what we're used to in English: the primary distinction is between conclusions that are necessary (in English, expressed with "must") and those that are merely possible ("may"). In evidential systems, probability is less important than how the information that led to the conclusion was obtained: an evidential system might have different verb inflections for something the speaker experienced firsthand, something that he heard from someone, something that he deuced from scattered clues, and something that is "common knowledge". Evidential systems can be pretty detailed--a language could have different inflections for each sense (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell). There are languages with mixed epistemic/evidential systems of various kinds--German has two words for "may": "sollen" and "wollen", where the former means that the event was reported by others and the latter means it was claimed by the subject.

Event modality has two subcategories: deontic and dynamic modality. In deontic modality the conditioning factors are external to the relevant individual, and in dynamic modality they are internal. Deontic modality is permission ("may" or "can", as in "You may enter now") and obligation ("must" as in "You must clean the dishes"). Dynamic modality is ability ("can" as in "John can speak Serbo-Croatian") and willingness ("will" as in "John will sing us a song").

It has been argued that "will" is, in fact, always a modal auxiliary verb and that English actually has no future tense as such...

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 04, 2003 11:35 pm 
Okay, I think I got that.

I'll have to read a few more times to make sure I learn the termonology, but it makes sense.

Thanks. :P

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 05, 2003 12:43 am 
That is excellent! The best use I've ever seen the Zoo put to. Thank you.

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