- Epistemic modality, language, and conceptualization: A cognitive-pragmatic perspective by Jan Nuyts
By studying the semantic domain of epistemic modality, Jan Nuyts seeks to understand how the mental representation of reality relates to its expressions in a cognitive system like human language. The approach is labeled ‘cognitive-pragmatic’ which, as explained in Ch. 1, means exploring the embedding of language in the human mind through an analysis of language production and use. This study is mainly based on empirical data from Dutch, German, and English.
In the next three chapters, N discusses the epistemic sense of modal sentence adverbs such as probably, predictive adjectives such as it is probable that (Ch. 2), mental state predicates such as think, believe, and doubt (Ch. 3), and modal auxiliaries (Ch. 4). Each of these chapters starts with a description of their lexical meanings and grammatical properties. There follows an investigation of their cognitive-pragmatic features under headings like evidentiality, performativity, information structure, and discourse strategy. While the last three areas are already generally known, evidentiality is still a relatively new area of research. Along this line, N argues that the primary feature of mental state predicates is the presence of a strong evidential meaning component, that is to say, an element of meaning which specifies the source of knowledge. This, if true, will qualify the common understanding that verbs like believe and doubt mainly express subjective knowledge. At the end of Ch. 4, N adds a postcript explaining that the epistemic meaning of Dutch modals like kunnen is a relatively recent development, much later than the emergence of the epistemic sense of English can.
In order to see how the findings in Chs. 2–4 correlate with the distribution over focal vs. nonfocal status of information flow in actual language use, N devises an empirical experiment in collaboration with Wietske Vonk from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Nijmegen. The results of this experiment are reported in Ch. 5. Basically, the experiment largely confirms, or at least does not squarely contradict, the findings about modal adverbs and adjectives and mental predicates as well. Ambiguities are detected with modal auxiliaries.
Ch. 6 presents theoretical generalizations of the empirical observations reported in the previous chapters. It is suggested that communicative needs regulate the syntax of epistemic expressions according to some ‘language blueprint’ in the human mind. Thus epistemic modality and its layered realization in language production stand in a continuous process starting from the conceptual level down to its linguistic expressions. In many respects this chapter contains an articulate statement about language production according to a version of functional grammar advocated by N over the last two decades under the name ‘functional procedural grammar’. The discussions in this book may appear rather challenging to those of us who are only marginally acquainted with this grammar and its theoretical framework. All in all, N has made a strong case for the existence of a cognitive infrastructure for language use and the processes involved in shaping linguistic structures.