Ugnius Mikučionis (Vilnius/Lithuania)
Some Remarks on the Semantics of the Norwegian Modal Verbs
Some Remarks on the Semantics of the Norwegian Modal Verbs
The aim of this article is to propose a valid and comprehensive description of the semantics of the modal auxiliary verbs in Modern Norwegian. It is based on a synchronic investigation, and I have confined myself to the written standard bokmål (dialectical peculiarities, slang, internet language etc. is left out). As modal auxiliaries, I reckon the following verbs: BURDE, KUNNE, MÅTTE, SKULLE and VILLE. Capital letters are used to refer to a verb1 as such, with all its morphological forms, while small letters are used to refer to a specific morphological form of a verb. Thus, 'KUNNE' embraces both å kunne (infinitive), kan (present), kunne (preterite), har kunnet (present perfect) and hadde kunnet (preterite perfect).
The main source for my investigation has been Norsk referansegrammatikk (henceforth NRG), the most voluminous description of Modern Norwegian language to date – and a relatively recent one, first published in 1997, and reprinted several times.
On of the tools which I use for the description of the diachronic relationships of meanings of the Norwegian modal auxiliary verbs is a semantic map. See de Haan (2004) for an overview of the methods of building semantic maps, and van der Auwera & Plungian (1998) for a cross-linguistically valid semantic map of modality.
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2 Basic concepts and definitions
Defining modality and delimiting its boundaries is a notoriously difficult task. In a recent paper, Jan Nuyts notices that modality "remains one of the most problematic and controversial notions: there is no consensus on how to define and characterise it, let alone on how to apply definitions in the empirical analysis of data. And there are no signs that the debates are heading in the direction of a final solution." (Nuyts 2005: 5). Scholars agree that "[m]odality is concerned with the status of the proposition that describes the event" (Palmer 2001: 1), but there have been launched many different proposals on how many subtypes or dimensions of modality one should operate with, and there is much disagreement on whether certain subtypes actually are a part of the domain of modality, or not (this goes especially for the so-called dynamic modality and evidential modality).
In this article, I confine myself to a rather traditional use of the term modality, embracing dynamic, deontic and epistemic modality, despite the fact that Jan Nuyts claims the term modality itself to be an unfortunate one (Nuyts 2005).
2.1 Epistemic vs Non-Epistemic Modality
Maybe the most popular, traditional way to describe modality is when one makes a difference between epistemic and deontic modality, sometimes augmented with a third type, the dynamic (or habilitative) modality.2
By epistemic modality one means the speaker's attitude towards the trustworthiness or likelihood of what is said (etymologically, the term epistemic is related to the ancient Greek word epistēmē, meaning knowledge).
NRG provides the following example:
The auxiliary verb må 'must' shows here the high degree of the speaker's assurance that the proposition's contents correspond to the reality (= 'it is highly likely that Kåre actually is ill').
By deontic modality one means the speaker's attitude towards whether the action specified in the utterance should/might be carried out or not. (The term deontic is derived from the ancient Greek word déon, meaning binding or proper).
In this case, the modal verb må 'must' shows that, in the speaker's opinion, it is necessary or required that the action be performed (= 'it is necessary, or required, that Kåre goes home').
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The third type of modality, the dynamic modality (from the ancient Greek dynamis 'power'), deals with the participant's ability or capability to perform the action specified in the utterance. According to most, but not all, authors it also includes willingness or readiness. An example of dynamic modality can be seen in the following sentence:
The meaning is that 'Kåre knows how to swim', 'Kåre is able to swim' – not to be confused with the sense that 'Kåre is allowed to swim', which would be a deontic interpretation of the same utterance.
If the same utterance may be interpreted in several different ways depending on context (like the sentence (3) above), I use the term ambiguity. It is not the same as vagueness, where different interpretations are available in the same context, gliding over into each another.
2.2 Necessity and Possibility, Categories vs Gradable Scales
The authors of NRG claim that the main "modal operators" are necessary and possible, that is, that one can describe the semantic content of each of the modal auxiliaries by means of these two notions alone (NRG: 583–585). Engh (1993) claims that impossible is a third "modal operator" on the same level as the two others. Lyons (1977), on the other hand, says that the operator necessary (nec) may be logically derived from possible (pos). In his view, then, there is no need for both of these "operators", as indicate below (quoted from Lie 1993: 63).
This interpretation – although favoured by logicians and formal semanticists – has not been adopted by all linguists.
In my view, there are good reasons to assume that the relationship between necessity and possibility is in fact a cline, hence a gradual transition, rather than two independent categories. Thus, one can speak of a stronger or weaker possibility, and necessity is then the same thing as a "very strong" possibility. I do not agree with Palmer who says that epistemic necessity means "the only possible conclusion" (Palmer 2001: 25 and many other places in his works). To my mind, "the most likely conclusion", is a more appropriate paraphrase. Regarding epistemic modality, many authors agree – explicitly or implicitly – that it would be an oversimplification to speak of possibility and necessity only, ignoring intermediate steps, such as a greater or a lesser degree of probability. Consider the following quotation from a recent article by van der Auwera et al.
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Concerning deontic modality, such a gradability view is not commonly accepted. However, Nuyts (2005) considers gradability in this modality, too.
Regarding dynamic modality, it is possible to provide a similar analysis, describing it by means of a gradable scale as well, going down from internal need through intermediary stages, such as volition and intention, towards ability (capability) and potential. My suggestion is to refer to such a scale as to "the degree of readiness".
Consider the following examples.
2.3 The Source of the Norm, or Subjectivity vs Objectivity
The domain of modality has also other dimensions than the division into epistemic, deontic and dynamic, discussed above. It is a common practice to distinguish between subjective vs. objective modality (cf. Palmer 1986: 16–17 and Palmer 2001: 75), although different authors can mean different things by these terms. See Herslund (2005) and Heltoft (2005) for recent discussions of these terms. According to Lie (1993), subjective deontic modality means that the speaker him-/herself is responsible for the permission, wish, encouragement, requirement or the like (the speaker him-/herself is the source of the norm).
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Objective deontic modality, on the other hand, means that the speaker refers to others' permission (wish, encouragement, requirement and the like). Epistemic modality seems, however, always to be subjective – or, at least, it is difficult to maintain the difference between subjective and objective epistemic modality, since it is always the speaker who expresses the inference (the conclusion), be it based on her/his own considerations (evaluations) or independent from them (Lie 1993: 66).
Of course, it is not difficult to see what Lie (1993) means by subjective vs objective deontic modality. He gives a very clear example: the sentence "You may come in now" expresses subjective deontic modality if it is uttered by the doctor himself to a patient sitting in the waiting-room, and objective deontic modality if it is uttered by a nurse, who only mediates the doctor's permission to the patient. However, I have problems with seeing how the difference between subjective and objective modality, defined in this way, could be important or fruitful for a description of Norwegian modals. I can see no significant difference between the two types, neither semantically nor formally.
Another difference is of much larger significance for the discussion of the semantics of the Norwegian modals, namely, whether the main reason for a directive is a person's (or an institution's) decision, or whether it is of a moral, medical or other kind (cf. NRG: 604–616, where a description of SKULLE, MÅTTE and BURDE is given). One could here talk of "authority-oriented" and "reason and/or goal-oriented" modality. I will use the traditional terms subjective vs. objective in this sense – subjective modality when the source of the norm is a person's or an institution's decision, and objective modality when the source of the norm lies in some external, objective conditions "out in the world".
I will only operate with one intermediary step in my description of the semantics of the Norwegian modals, although it could be discussed whether a more detailed gradation should be preferred.
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For practical reasons it might be useful to use the familiar semantic labels to each of the cells in Figure 1 above.
3 The Description of the Norwegian Modals
For space reasons, I will consider the finite simple forms of the Norwegian modal verbs only, i. e. present and preterite forms, viz. kan (the English counterpart of which is 'can'), kunne ('could'), vil ('will'), ville ('would'), skal ('shall'), skulle ('should'), må ('must', 'has to', although this Norwegian verb is etymologically related to the English 'may'), måtte ('had to'), bør ('ought to') and burde (preterite form of bør).
It seems appropriate to mention that the preterite forms of Norwegian verbs do not always refer to the past. They are quite commonly used in hypothetical utterances, particularly in if-clauses, and may therefore be compared to conjunctive/subjunctive of other languages. I call such cases quasi-subjunctive.
Norwegian has no future tense. Constructions with the modal verbs skal and vil refer to future events in many cases; however, the meaning is never purely temporal. Constructions with skal usually involve intention, promise, encouragement or assumption. Constructions with vil usually involve volition, request or prediction.
3.1 The Meanings of KUNNE
The modal verb KUNNE occurs in two simple finite forms, the present kan and the preterite kunne. Going from left to right in the figure, and starting at the weak level, the present form kan can be used to express the following meanings:
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The permission can either be issued directly by the speaker, as in (9 a), or by some public authority, as in (9 b).
The subjective deontic meaning can also be strong, i.e. as a directive.
Finally, kan can also be used for weak epistemic, i.e. as speculative.
The preterite form kunne can be used to express the following meanings, largely overlapping with the weak modal meanings of kan:
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The preterite form 'kunne' is also used to express speculative in hypothetical contexts (quasi-subjunctive), as in (14 b):
The meaning of KUNNE, then, is largely as a weak modal. It occurs across the chart from dynamic to epistemic, with a clustering at the subjective deontic where it also gains stronger modality as hortative and directive.
3.2 The Meanings of MÅTTE
MÅTTE occurs in the present form må and the preterite form måtte. The present tense form må can be used to express the following meanings:
The preterite form 'måtte' may be used to express necessitive and assertive in hypothetical contexts (quasi-subjunctive):
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Summing up the patterning of MÅTTE, one can say that it is a strong modal which occurs accross the chart from dynamic to epistemic, whith a clustering at subjective deontic modality where it also gains intermediary modality as hortative.
3.3 The Meanings of SKULLE
SKULLE represents the intermediate strength. The present tense form 'skal' may be used to express the following meanings:
The preterite form 'skulle' is used to express hortative or probabilitive.
The preterite form 'skulle' is also used to express probabilitive in hypothetical contexts (quasi-subjunctive), as in (27 b):
To sum up, 'SKULLE' is a medium-strong modal, which occurs across the chart from dynamic to epistemic modality, with the exception of objective deontic modality. In the domain of subjective deontic modality, it may also function as a strong modal, expressing directive.
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3.4 The Meanings of VILLE
The present tense form 'vil' may be used to express the following meanings:
The preterite form 'ville' may be used to express hortative and probabilitive.
The preterite form 'ville' is also used to express probabilitive in hypothetical contexts (quasi-subjunctive), as in (32 b):
To sum up, 'VILLE' is a medium-strong modal (similarly to 'SKULLE'), which occurs across the chart from dynamic to epistemic modality, with the exception of objective deontic modality. In the domain of subjective deontic modality, it may also function as a strong modal, expressing directive (in sentences with inverted word order).
3.5 The Meanings of BURDE
The present tense form 'bør' may be used to express the following meanings:
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In same cases there can be vagueness between epistemic and deontic interpretation of BURDE, so that the same utterance can be interpreted both as epistemic and as deontic in the same context, cf:
The preterite form 'burde' may be used to express the same meanings as 'bør' (that is, appropriative and probabilitive):
The appropriateness (obligation), expressed by 'burde', is weaker than the appropriateness (obligation) expressed by the present tense form 'bør'. It may also be implicit that the action, specified in the utterance, actually will not be carried out (quasi-subjunctive), cf.:
Compared with the present tense form 'bør', 'burde' expresses a lower degree of probability.
To sum up, BURDE is a medium-strong modal, occurring in the chart at objective deontic modality and epistemic modality. The preterite form 'burde' exhibits subjunctive-like features, viz., lower degree of strength than the present tense form 'bør', but the semantic differences between 'bør' and 'burde' are relatively small, so that both 'bør' and 'burde' may be placed in the same cells in the chart.
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3.6 A preliminary overview of the semantic distribution of the modals
Figure 3 presents an overview of the meanings of the Norwegian modal verbs, based on the conceptual map presented in Figure 2 above.
Beside these core modal meanings, the Norwegian modal auxiliaries may also have several other functions, which are outlined in the next section.
4 Illocutions and quotations
There are furthermore a few other meanings that should also be fitted into the modal meanings, namely wishes, promises/guaranties (including warnings and threats) and quotatives (=hearsay). I provide examples below and then discuss how they should be fitted into the general schema.
'Må' and 'måtte' are used in some – more or less idiomatic – expressions of wish:
Palmer calls whishes and fears "partly deontic, partly epistemic" (Palmer 2001: 13). They containt both an element of directive or hortative and an element of prediction.
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'Skal' is quite commonly used to express promise or guaranty:
One subtype of promises/guaranties is warnings and threats:
My suggestion is to treat such utterances as partly dynamic and partly epistemic, since they include both an element of will and an element of prediction about something which is going to happen in the future.
The modal verb 'SKULLE' may be used to express the so-called quotative (or hearsay) meaning:
Quotative is, undoubtfully, a sub-type of epistemic modality, but differently from the other subtypes it is not specified for the degree of the strength.
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5 Conclusions and suggestions for further research
One can summarize what has been described above in a figure like this:
The schema in Figure 4 gives rise to a number of predictions regarding the relationships between the slots and the lexical items that fill them. In particular, we would expect diachronic development of polysemy to behave in correspondance with the so-called "unidirectionality hypothesis" (see Bybee et al. 1994). It is usually claimed that in the process of grammaticalization, lexical verbs develop deontic meanings first, which then may in their turn develop into epistemic ones.
So, one could expect that the paths of development should look like this:
Figure 4 above prooves that there are certain connections between the slots in the vertical dimension as well, not only in the horizontal. If we look at domain of subjective deontic modality, we can observe that the modal 'KUNNE' may express both permissive, hortative and directive, while 'SKULLE', 'MÅTTE' and 'VILLE' may express both hortative and directive. Therefore it seems that there is no unidirectionality in the vertical dimension, but that hortative and directive meanings may develop out of each other:
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This agrees with van der Auwera & Plungian's semantic map of modality (van der Auwera, Plungian 1998).
The quotative meaning seems to be related with promise, since both promise and quotative are expressed by means of the modal verb 'SKULLE', although this case deserves closer attention and a separate investigation. The development from promise to quotative may have been influenced by language contacts (cf. German 'sollen').
The meanings of Norwegian modal verbs and the (supposed) diachronic connections between those meanings may be represented by the means of a semantic map:
A single arrow means "can develop into", while a double arrow means "can develop into and and be developed from".
Thus, COMPULSATIVE can develop into NECESSITIVE or into DIRECTIVE. DIRECTIVE can further develop into WISH or HORTATIVE.
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The HORTATIVE meaning can come both from DIRECTIVE, PERMISSIVE, INTENTIVE or VOLITIVE.
In its turn, HORTATIVE can further develop into DIRECTIVE or PROBABILITIVE. ABILITIVE can develop into POSSIBILITIVE and into PERMISSIVE.
PERMISSIVE can further develop into HORTATIVE.
Note that most of the arrows are single (unidirectional). The only double (bidirectional) arrow is one connecting DIRECTIVE and HORTATIVE, which means that DIRECTIVE can develop into HORTATIVE and vice versa.
Some of the Norwegian modal verbs have meanings which are most precisely characterised as partly epistemic and partly deontic, or partly epistemic and partly dynamic. It follows herefrom that the domains of epistemic and non-epistemic modality are closely interrelated, and it seems problematic to agree with Jan Nuyts' claim that the traditional notion of modality should be abandoned (Nuyts 2005).
Bybee, Joan et al. (1994): The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago.
de Haan, Ferdinand (2004): On representing semantic maps. URL: http://www.u.arizona.edu/~fdehaan/papers/semmap.pdf (accessed on 20-06-2007).
Engh, Jan (1993): "Tre forelesinger om tempus og om modalverb i norsk", in: Norskrift. Arbeidsskrift for nordisk språk og litteratur 80), 1–86.
Heltoft, Lars (2005): "Modality and subjectivity", in: Klinge, Alex / Müller, Henrik H. (eds.): Modality: Studies in Form and Function. Oakville, 81–102.
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Herslund, M. (2005): "Subjective and objective modality", in: Klinge, Alex / Müller, Henrik H. (eds.): Modality: Studies in Form and Function. Oakville, 39–48.
Lie, Svein (1993): "Modalverb i norsk. Spredte momenter til beskrivelse", in: Norskrift. Arbeidsskrift for nordisk språk og litteratur 78, 61–74.
NRG = Faarlund, Jan T. / Lie, Svein / Vannebo, Kjell I. (1997): Norsk referansegrammatikk. Oslo.
Nuyts, Jan (2005): "The modal confusion: on terminology and the concepts behind it", in: Klinge, Alex / Müller, Henrik H. (eds.): Modality: Studies in Form and Function. Oakville, 5–38.
Palmer, Frank. R. (2001): Mood and Modality (2nd edition). Cambridge.
van der Auwera, Johan / Plungian, Vladimir A. (1998): "Modality's Semantip Map", in: Linguistic Typology, 2(1), 79–124.
van der Auwera, Johan / Ammann, Andreas / Kindt, Saskia (2005): "Modal polyfunctionality and Standard Average European", in: Klinge, Alex / Müller, Henrik H. (eds.): Modality: Studies in Form and Function. Oakville, 247–268.
1 I don't want to use the term "lexeme" here, since modal auxiliaries are grammatical, rather than lexical, items.
2 The authors of NRG claim that "[...] this category of modality is not on the same level as epistemic and deontic modality and we shall only reckon these two as main categories of modality" (NRG: 581).