The autopsy of a modal – insights from the historical development of German

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As Abraham (1990, 1991, 2005) has pointed out, aspect plays a crucial role, when epistemic modals (em) emerge out of root modals (rm). The present paper shows that the different aspectual preferences of those items are reflected by the differences in the configuration of the modal’s event structure: whereas rm turn out to be event modifiers, em are propositional modifiers. In technical detail, rm select infinitival complements involving an event argument and assign to them a interval posterior to utterance time. em, on the other hand, can combine with any non-finite complement that constitutes a licit proposition. This paper will discuss some data from German that shows that rm are indeed event modifiers since they (1) fail to embed predicates that lack event arguments and (2) are bound to complements with future orientation. The grammaticalisation of em then can be considered as a decline of the modal’s ability to modify events. This major change in its event structure causes the modal to extend its scope from events over propositions. This assumption is confirmed throughout by the fact that early em contained by the corpus exploited here only combine with predicates lacking event arguments, whereas rm never do. Finally, the theory offered here provides an interesting link between formal accounts and functional ones: Considering rm as event modifier, it explains why they are always “action oriented”, as commonly assumed by most functionalist approaches.


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