Paper Three

Linguistic Modality as Expressions of Social Power

(with Peter Gärdenfors)



The semantics of the linguistic modals is argued to be determined mainly by the power structure of the participants in the interaction. In the deontic uses of the modals, another determining factor is the expectations of the participants' attitudes towards the relevant action. By viewing the evidence as a power in its own right, our analysis can be generalized to the epistemic uses in a coherent way. The epistemic uses are seen as pragmatic strengthenings of the deontic uses, rather than as metaphorical mappings.

This paper is published. Please quote as follows:

Paper Three:

Winter, S. & Gärdenfors, P. 1995. "Linguistic Modality as Expressions of Social Power." Nordic Journal of Linguistics 18 (2): 137-166.



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Short note on the paper:

This paper is a contribution to a special issue of Nordic Journal of Linguistics on Cognitive Linguistics. It was written with Peter Gärdenfors in 1994, which makes it the oldest in the thesis. It is intended for a linguistic audience and thus more "traditional" than the other papers. The adaptation to more traditional linguistics means that we make different theoretical assumptions than in the other chapters, in particular concerning the possibility to assess the hearer`s attitudes towards a certain event or action (Section 3.3).

Our model builds upon earlier analyses of linguistic modality in terms of force dynamics. Talmy considers force to be one of the underlying structuring principles of language on a par with gender or number, and shows elegantly how a great variety of linguistic surface phenomena receive a unified explanation with the aid of force dynamics, among them modality and causality. Talmy considers the coding of physical force to extend to the social domain by metaphoric mapping.

In contrast to Talmy, we see the social power structure as fundamental for organizing the modal verbs. "The one in power" in a communicative setting has, above all, the power of determining the perspective on the situation at hand, and the "obedient" has to conform to the will of the one in power. A modal verb, like can or may, depends for its use on the relation between the speaker and the hearer with respect to their relative social power and their respective attitude to the situation at hand. For example, in a situation where "I" want to leave but feel that "you" are in power, I can utter "May I go now?," while I would not do that in a setting where I had the power to decide for myself. In the corresponding situation where I did not want to leave, no linguistic output would be produced at all. Thus, both social power and attitude constitute relevance criteria for the modal utterances. In fact, it is not the attitudes in themselves that are operative in the linguistic contexts, but rather the expectations that the obedient has of the attitude of the one in power - which is needed to take the perspective of the one in power.

More complicated situations arise with modals like must, since it is necessary to consider a third power that is located outside the situation of communication, and thus not subject to negotiation. If I say "I must go now," I declare myself as obedient in relation to a power that is stronger than both of "us."

The kind of modality that I have exemplified here is called deontic modality and refers to the social interaction and originally to the obligations in the situation. Traditionally, linguistic and philosophical analyses of modality have however started out from another form of modality, called epistemic modality, that refers to the knowledge state of the interlocutors. If I say "He must be there now, because I saw his car," this does not mean that something forces him to be there, but rather that the proposition that he is there is likely to be true, because of the fact that I saw his car. Sweetser (1990) describes this as a metaphorical mapping from the real world to the "epistemic world," but in our model, we follow Traugott (1989), who sees phenomena like these as "pragmatic strengthenings." Although "pragmatic strengthening" is a rather vague theoretical concept, I believe that this concept is easier to fit together with the focus on pragmatics, semantics and syntax as progressive conventionalizations of each other (see the Introduction) than a metaphorical account would be.

Many languages have developed epistemic modality from deontic, using the same word forms for both deontic and epistemic. From a cognitive point of view, the development of epistemic modality corresponds to viewing evidence as a power in its own right, rather than related to personal experience and social relations.

Paper Three is typical of the general approach of the thesis in that it focuses on the nonlinguistic factors in the situation and formulates a model of what utterances one can expect given these factors, in this case the social power structure and expectations about attitudes to the relevant actions. In section 1.7 in the Introduction I exemplified phenomena that corresponded to different degrees of conventionalization on the pragmatic, semantic and morpho-syntactic levels. Modal verbs represent a conventionalization at the highest level, and it is in fact interesting that it is possible at all to perform the kind of decomposition in terms of pragmatic factors - power and expectations of attitudes - that we do in this paper, since the internal forces on each level - pragmatics, semantics, syntax - are rather strong.

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