Semantics 6:               Modality and Evidentiality

1. Defining modality

   The expression of possibility, probability, necessity -- sentence types in which a proposition is not asserted

   Asserted proposition: this film is boring
   Modalised proposition: this film may/could/must be boring

Semantic properties of modals:

1.1 scope ambiguity (results from interaction with another operator, such as negation)

    We could not have any exam

(i) It would be possible for us not to have an exam                 POSS  [~have exam]
(ii) It would not be / was not possible for us to have an exam    ~ POSS  [have exam]

1.2 deontic vs. epistemic readings

    We should arrive on time:
(i) we are under an obligation to arrive on time    (deontic)
(ii) it is likely that we'll arrive on time     (epistemic)

    She must be good, to get into HKU
 (i) it is required that she be good (in order to enter HKU)      (deontic)
(ii) it is evident that she is good (since she is at HKU)    (epistemic)

Types of Modality:    deontic                 epistemic
Possibility:    You may leave now        He may be insane
Necessity:   You must leave now        He must be insane

                    deontic                   epistemic

possibility       can, may               may/might
                     ho2ji5…, …dak1    ho2lang4

necessity        must                       must
                 jat1ding6 jiu3          jat1ding6 (hai6), sat6

obligation       should, ought            should
                     jing1goi1               jing1goi1 (hai6)

2. Modality in logic

2.1 Modal operators:

NEC  p  ‘p must be the case’
POSS p  ‘p may be the case’

2.2 Logical relation of possibility and necessity

NEC p <=> ~ POSS [~p]  he must come <=> it's not possible that he won't come

Keoi5 jat1ding6 jiu3 lai4  <=>  Keoi5 m4 ho2ji5 m4 lai4  ‘He must come’

POSS p  <=> ~ NEC p     he may come  <=> it's not necessary that he come

Keoi5 ho2lang4 lai4  ‘He may come’ <--> Keoi5 mei6 bit1 lai4  ‘He may not come’

2.3 Modality and possible worlds

 The Queen may visit HKU
‘There is a possible world such that the Queen visits HKU’

The Queen should visit HKU
‘There is a desirable possible world such that the Queen visits HKU’

3. Additional ("non-logical") forms of modality in natural language

3.1 subjective vs. objective modality (Lyons)

   I should work faster   (i) according to the rules (objective: I'm supposed to)
                                (ii) according to my own judgment (subjective: I think so)

   We must go and renew these books (objective `must': obligation imposed from outside)
   We must go and see this film  (subjective `must': obligation imposed by self)

   you may leave = (i) You are allowed to leave by law (objective deontic possibility)
                           (ii) I hereby give you permission to leave (subjective deontic possibility)

3.2 Degrees of possibility/necessity

   may  > might    I may come (c. 50% probability) vs. I might come  (<50%)
   can   > could
   must  > should

3.3 Non-logical forms of possibility

   ability      (can she swim?)
   volition     (will you help me?)

4. Evidentiality

4.1 Defining evidentiality:

“a term for the ways in which a speaker qualifies a statement by referring to the source of the information.” (Saeed 1997:133)

Possible sources of information:

Speculative use of Mandarin ba:

(1`)   Zhe  ge   Hanzi    bu    dui    ba.     (Cheung 1994:166)
       this CL character not correct PRT
     “This Chinese character is wrong, I guess.”  (source = speculation)

4.2 Evidentiality and modality: systematic polysemy

Hearsay evidential usage of the French conditional:

(2)  Il     aurait     choisi    la   mort.
      he have-COND chosen the death
    "He is said to have chosen death." (source = hearsay, legend etc)

Speculative usage of French future:

(3)    Il aura  fait  son  choix..
      he have-FUT made his choice
      "He has probably made his choice."

German: auxiliary sollen

(4)   Ich soll ihn anrufen.            “I’m supposed (obliged) to call him.”         (deontic)
(5)   Ich soll ihn angerufen haben.     “I’m supposed (alleged) to have called him.”   (evidential)

French: conditional “tense”

(6) Ce serait le meilleur film de l’année
      it  be-COND the best film of the year

(i) It would be the best film of the year (if it were made: conditional)
(ii)  It is supposed to be the best film of the year  (evidential)

 “evidentials are neutral as far as a commitment to the truth on the part of the speaker is concerned.” (de Haan 1998:2)

4.3 Cantonese evidential particles

(7) A: Keoi5 zou6 mat1je5 m4 lai4 ge2?
          'Why didn't he come?'

    B: M4 syu1fuk6 a1maa3    (self-evident)
        'He was sick, of course.'

       M4 syu1fuk6 gwaa3   (speculative)
      'He was sick, I guess.'

       M4 syu1fuk6 wo5       (hearsay)
      'He was sick, apparently.'

4.4 Evidentiality and mirativity

“[The category mirative] marks both statements based on inference and statements based on direct experience for which the speaker had no psychological preparation, and in some languages hearsay data as well. What these apparently disparate data sources have in common... is that the proposition is one which is new to the speaker, not yet integrated into his overall picture of the world.” (DeLancey 1997: 36)

Turkish: “inferential perfect” verb form in -mIs indicating inference, hearsay or surprise:

(8)   Kenmal gel-mIs
        Kemal come-INFER
        “Kemal has come (presumably/apparently/surprisingly).”

Mapudunun (Chile: Aikhenvald 2004): same suffix for reported (REP) and mirative

(9) aku-rke-y
  'She arrived, they say'   (evidential interpretation)

(10) Fey ti chi domo kalko-rke
        that ART woman witch-MIR
    'This woman turns out to be a witch (surprisingly)'  (mirative interpretation)

(11) Go leoizai hou leng wo
      that girl very beautiful PRT
     'That girl is said to be very beautiful' or
     'That girl is really beautiful!' ?


Aikenvald, Alexandra. 2004. Evidentiality. Oxford University Press.
Chafe, Wallace and Johanna Nichols (eds). 1986. Evidentiality: The Linguistic Coding of Epistemology. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex.
Cheung, Samuel Hung Nin. 1994. A Practical Chinese Grammar. Hong Kong: CUHK Press.
De Haan, Ferdinand. 1998. Evidentiality and epistemic modality. Ms., University of New Mexico.  Http://
DeLancey, Scott. 1997. ‘Mirativity: the grammatical marking of unexpected information.’  Linguistic Typology 1-1, 33-52.