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The Aspect-Modality Interface: a Typological perspective

Final Report Summary - AMITY (The Aspect-Modality Interface: a Typological perspective)

The project tackles the way in which aspectual verbal forms can yield a modal interpretation in six European languages, namely French, Spanish, Italian, English, German and Dutch. The aim is to account for the correspondences between aspect and modality in these languages and to give a panorama of the convergences and the differences that exist both within and between each language family.

The project focused on the modal interpretations of imperfects (imperfective aspect) and preterits (neutral aspect) in the six Romance and Germanic languages under investigation. The implementation included two main phases related to the two aforementioned objectives.

The first phase was devoted to the semantic and pragmatic analysis of the aspect-modality connection in each of the six languages under investigation. Within this phase, the researcher performed several tasks: she explored the literature on the subject and built a corpus by gathering data from the six languages. After this preliminary work, she made a critical inventory of the modal uses of the past tenses in relation to what was mentioned in the literature and was observed in the corpus. Finally, the researcher analysed the collected data with respect to the aspect-modality connection and elaborated a classification based on a set of linguistic criteria.

The second main step was dedicated to the comparison of the six European languages with regards to the aspect-modality connection. Within this phase, the researcher contrasted the results obtained for each individual language, from both a family-internal and cross-family perspective. This work also gave rise to the elaboration of synthetic semantic maps.

The first phase of the project permitted one to establish an inventory of the modal uses observed in the six languages under investigation. This inventory was based on a functional definition of 'modal uses' as the expression of the speaker's (inter)subjective intentionality. Using this definition, 14 different modal uses were identified.

A second achievement was the elaboration of a classification for which four linguistic criteria were selected:
(i) the modality,
(ii) the contribution of aspect and tense,
(iii) the role played by the past reference point denoted by the tense morphology, and
(iv) the type of contexts according to Heine (2002)'s theory of semantic change.
This lead to the distinction of four categories of modal uses: the epistemic uses, the evidential uses, the illocutionary uses and the counterfactual uses.

The main result of this analysis was the claim that there is no one single connection between imperfective aspect and modality (as is usually argued in the literature), but several possible connections that are inferential in nature: the produced modality originates in the conventionalisation of ad hoc pragmatic inferences triggered by the aspectual form. This would suggest that there may be no absolute (i.e. universal) link between imperfectivity and modality (and no absolute incompatibility between perfectivity and modality).

The first result of the contrastive study is the claim that Romance imperfects and Germanic preterits exhibit the same categories of modal uses, except the counterfactual uses, which are only entrenched in the Romance area. Secondly, the following facts have been established: within the Romance family, French has developed more various uses than its sister languages, and so did English and Dutch in the Germanic family.

These results will allow for future comparisons with other languages and the construction of more elaborate maps with a universal design.