Indeterminacy and the interpretation patterns for modal utterances in English and Swedish

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Indeterminacy and the interpretation patterns for modal utterances in English and Swedish

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Title Indeterminacy and the interpretation patterns for modal utterances in English and Swedish
Author(s) Wärnsby, Anna
Date 2011
English abstract
The interpretation of modal verbs continues to pose both theoretical and descriptive problems. Many studies on modal verbs appeal to notions of context (e.g. Kratzer 1991, Coates 1983, Papafragou 2000). Few studies, however, undertake a task of actually defining these contexts. This study is usage-based. It investigates a large number of naturally occurring examples in order to outline patterns of interpretation of utterances containing modal verbs (see Wärnsby 2006). It is based on approximately 3,000 examples of the English must and may, and their Swedish counterparts måste and kan. These examples are extracted with co-text from the English-Swedish Parallel Corpus. The data are subjected to a data mining analysis using 21 different contextual variables, including time reference, type of subject, type of verb, aspectual modification. The results of this analysis support the hypothesis that disambiguating utterances containing modal verbs is a process where certain variables or combinations of variables are of crucial importance, whereas others are not. 96.5% of examples containing must and 94.2% of måste-data are correctly predicted as being epistemic or deontic. 77.6% of may-data and 66.1% of kan-data are correctly predicted according to the different interpretations these utterances receive in context. Furthermore, the patterning of the contextual variables investigated with respect to modal interpretations is similar in the two languages under investigation, English and Swedish. Some of the examples, however, have eluded data analysis. Most of these examples are indeterminate. Contrary to what is observed in the clearly epistemic and deontic examples, in the indeterminate examples there is no apparent systematicity in the co-occurrence patterns of the variables discussed. References Coates, Jennifer. 1983. The semantics of modal auxiliaries. London and Canberra: Croom Helm Kratzer, Angelika. 1991. Modality. In von Stechow, A. and D. Wunderlich (eds.), Semantics: an international handbook of contemporary research, 639-650. Berlin: De Gruyter Papafragou, Anna. 2000. Modality: issues in the semantics-pragmatics interface. Amsterdam, Lausanne, New York, Oxford, Shannon, Singapore and Tokyo: Elsevier Wärnsby, Anna. 2006. (De)coding modality: The case of Must, May, Måste and Kan. Lund studies in English 113, Thormählen, M. and B. Warren (eds.). Lund: Department of English, Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University
Language eng (iso)
Subject(s) modality
contrastive studies
cognitive linguistics
Humanities/Social Sciences
Research Subject Categories::HUMANITIES and RELIGION
Note CHRONOS 2011, 18-20 April, Aston University, Birmingham, UK
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