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The Aspect-Modality Interface: a Typological perspective

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Linguistic comparisons

A cross-comparison of various grammatical aspects among western Europe's main languages points to interesting differences in usage that reflect thoughts in different ways.

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Europe's linguistic colour can be fascinating, and the differences between Romance and Germanic language types reveals much about how thought and understanding are evolving on the continent. One important way to look at these is through the grammatical system of Tense-Aspect-Modality (TAM), particularly the relationship between aspect and modality. While aspect looks at the fabric of time, be it a single block of time or continuous flow, modality or mood looks at degree of necessity, probability or ability. The EU-funded project 'The Aspect-modality interface: a typological perspective' (AMITY) investigated how aspectual verbal forms reflect a modal interpretation in six European languages, namely English, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish. The project examined correspondences between aspect and modality to document the convergences and the differences within and between each language family. This was achieved by looking at the languages' modal interpretations of imperfects (imperfective aspect) and preterits (neutral aspect). AMITY analysed the aspect-modality connection in each language, catalogued the modal uses of the past tenses and collected relevant data according to a set of linguistic criteria. It then undertook a comparison of the six languages from a family-internal perspective and from a cross-family one as well, helping the project team elaborate synthetic semantic maps. This development allowed AMITY to effectively identify and create an inventory of 14 different modal uses for these languages, where modal uses implies the expression of the speaker's (inter)subjective intentionality. The project also elaborated a classification based on different linguistic criteria comprising four categories of modal uses: epistemic, evidential, illocutionary and counterfactual. One of the main project findings is that there is no one single connection between the imperfective aspect and modality but several possible connections that are inferential in nature. This implies that there is no universal link between imperfectivity and modality, yet no incompatibility between perfectivity and modality as well. Such observations and others help clarify the independent evolution of each language and its peculiarities, affirming a robust variety of expression in Europe and opening doors for more linguistic debate.

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