TPS 116(2) – Abstract 5

Syntax and semantics of modal predicates in Indo‐European

by Carlotta Viti (University of Zurich)

This paper discusses the syntactic variation of modal predicates between structures with a nominative primary argument and those with an oblique primary argument. In the literature, this variation is related to a change from deontic to epistemic meanings, whereby epistemicity seems to be more commonly expressed by highly grammaticalized impersonal constructions. After having shown the weakness of this relationship, I suggest a new explanation for the variation of modal predicates on the basis of diverse ancient Indo‐European languages, such as Vedic, Ancient Greek and Latin, as well as of some of their modern descendants, especially Hindi, Modern Greek, and standard and colloquial Italian. I argue that modal predicates with an oblique primary argument are favoured for functions of necessity, while modal predicates with a nominative primary argument preferably express functions of possibility. This reflects the different meanings of the lexical sources of these predicates, that is, capacity or power for predicates of possibility, and lack or obligation for predicates of necessity, which also imply different degrees of agentivity and control.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12116

Semantically driven grammaticalisation: the systematic pathways of Estonian polar question particles

by Mari Aigro (University of Tartu)

Seeing grammaticalisation as being analogically driven takes the explanatory power, which is frequently assigned to syntactic position, and assigns it to the semantic analogy between the source and the target. This case study focuses on the semantic cohesion patterns in the pathways of contemporary as well as historical Estonian polar question particles (PQPs). It will show that not only is the semantic component of function words much more relevant to grammaticalisation than is commonly thought, but also that the grammaticalisation network surrounding a functional category can in fact be semantically so uniform that one can devise a model based on a semantic map and assign it a certain degree of explanatory power regarding why certain markers become PQPs and others are much less likely to do so.

While the most frequently mentioned PQP sources are negation and disjunction markers (Heine & Kuteva 2002), a comprehensive literature review reveals altogether six source categories. In addition to disjunction and negation markers, this list also includes clause conjunction markers, embedded PQPs, conditional markers and pronominal interrogatives (König & Siemund 2007, Nordström 2010, Metslang et al. 2017). These sources appear to form a systematic set – all of the above could be classified as markers of polarity or truth values (see Payne 1985 for coordinators, Nordström 2010 for conditionals). To investigate, whether or not this principle would hold for additional data and other newly discovered source categories, an in-depth corpus study was carried out on Estonian, a language especially rich in both neutral and biased PQPs.

Nearly 2400 polar questions using the particle strategy (inversion and zero-marking strategies are used alongside) were manually encoded in the Corpus of Old Written Estonian (17th–19th century) and the Corpus of Standard Estonian (20th century). I found six different PQPs—four biased and two neutral—used between the 17th and 21st centuries. Three of them—kas, või, ega—are still in use in Standard Modern Estonian. The source of kas is either a clause conjunction (“also”) or an embedded PQP; või most likely originates from a disjunction (“or”); and ega from a clause rejection marker (“nor”). The three historical polar question markers are eks, eps and jo/ju; while the first two originate from negation, the source of the latter is an affirmative focus marker. Only three have given rise to new functional structures: eks became an affirmative polar tag question marker; kas gave rise to the disjunction marker “either”; and jo/ju, after its brief time as a PQP, became a marker of evidentiality when occurring sentence-initially (retaining the older focus reading in other positions).

Hence, the new source categories introduced by the corpus study were polarity-sensitive focus markers (for ju) and rejection markers (for ega), both of which confirm the hypothesis that polar question particles originate from non-interrogative markers, which already involve the semantic component of negation, affirmation or neutral (open) polarity. Table 1 depicts the pathways of Estonian PQPs on a semantic map, which links the two dimensions of polarity – interrogation and bias.

Table 1: Semantic map of Estonian PQPs

Markers in the neutral category are especially relevant. They leave the truth value unknown, assigning open polarity even without interrogation, and due to this share a close link with PQPs. PQPs are more frequently homophonous with disjunction markers than other particles and both of the non-biased Estonian PQPs, kas and või, originate from the neutral category. Additionally, all functional markers originating from PQPs belong in this category. However, although the fact that the map accommodates all known sources of PQPs implies causality, it can only constitute a probabilistic rather than a deterministic model.


Aigro, M. 2017. A Diachronic Study of Polar Question Particles and Their Sources. MPhil thesis, University of Cambridge.

Heine, B. & Kuteva, T. 2002. World Lexicon of Grammaticalisation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

König, E. & Siemund, P. 2007. Speech Act Distinctions in Grammar. In T. Shopen, ed. Language Typology and Syntactic Description, Vol 1: Clause Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Metslang, H., Habicht, K. & Pajusalu, K. 2017. Where Do Polar Question Markers Come From? STUF – Language Typology and Universals 70(3).

Nordström, J. 2010. Modality and Subordinators, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Payne, J.R. 1985. Complex Phrases and Complex Sentences. In T. Shopen (ed.) Language Typology and Syntactic Description. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek

by Robert S. D. Crellin (University of Cambridge)

trps_oc_mockup1_Layout 1The semantics of the Ancient Greek perfect active, morphologically directly inherited from the Proto-Indo-European form of the same name, has long been a matter of scholarly contention. What makes this verb form semantically so interesting is that for most of the duration of Ancient Greek it seems to combine several tense-aspect and diathetical features, namely anteriority, resultativity, stativity, and detransitivisation in causative predicates, which are in many languages conveyed by separate morphological means. To put this in concrete terms, in Ancient Greek you would use a perfect active form to render both English ‘I have made a chair’ and ‘I stand’. This has led to a variety of approaches to analysing the perfect’s semantics, to varying degrees either positing lexicalisation of apparently aberrant readings, or generalising a particular aspect of the semantic behaviour of the perfect, but beyond what the data as a whole can support.

My recent monograph, The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek, seeks to address the question of the semantic description of the Greek perfect head-on, on the basis of the plentiful but understudied corpus of literary post-Classical Greek (c. 300 BCE – 300 CE). After some theoretical preliminaries, the study first assesses the full range of behaviours of the perfect in this corpus according to verb and predicate type, before building up a semantic description of the perfect from which the perfect’s diverse interactions with different predicate-types can be derived. This is achieved by adopting insights inter alia from Tenny’s Aspectual Interface Hypothesis (Tenny 1994) as well as the generative tradition, to provide an account of the perfect’s semantics which thoroughly integrates its argument structure relations with its tense-aspect denotations. It is demonstrated that it is possible to formulate a semantic description by which one may predict, with a predicate of known semantic properties, how the perfect will be read. Specifically, the perfect derives a homogeneous atelic eventuality from the predicate which it heads.

The simplest case is that in predicates which are themselves homogeneous and atelic, such as states, the perfect may simply derive another state from the predicate:

trépetai katà stenōpòn ēremēkóta
turn.PRS.IND.N-ACT.3SG PTCL down corridor.M.ACC.SG be_quiet.PRF.PART.ACT.M.ACC.SG
‘He turned down a quiet narrow passage…’ (Jos. AJ 19.104, monograph p. 50)

However, since the negative of a state may also be said to have the same event structural properties, a cancelled state is also a valid reading of the perfect, e.g.:

Phregéllai… pólis… tàs pollàs tôn
Phregellai city.F.NOM.SG ART.F.ACC.PL many.F.ACC.PL ART.GEN.PL
árti lekhtheîsōn perioikídas próteron eskhēkuîa
just_now say.AOR.PART.N-ACT.GEN.PL dependent_town.F.ACC.PL previously have.PRF.PART.ACT.F.NOM.SG 
‘Phregellai… a city… which previously had the majority of the places just mentioned as dependent towns.’ (Strabo 5.3.10, monograph p. 236)

Indeed, it may be said more generally that the negative of any eventuality is homogeneous and atelic (see e.g. de Swart 1996: 229 who, following Verkuyl 1993, takes such predicates as states). This allows the perfect to derive such an eventuality from predicates where the subject is not presented as entering into a state, by instantiating the predicate and locating the subject in the homogeneous and atelic post-situation e.g.:

hóper kagṑ nûn pepoíēka
‘… which is exactly what I have now done.’ (Jos. AJ 12.213, monograph p. 17)

The relationship between argument structure and tense-aspect denotation becomes clear in labile change-of-state predicates. Here the perfect active may have resultative or anterior semantics according to its syntax. Read as detransitivising, the perfect is read as resultative, whereas when the predicate is transitive, it reads as an anterior. In each case, the perfect is seen to derive a homogeneous atelic eventuality and predicates this of the subject:

heistḗkei dè… hupestalkṑs tôi skótōi.
‘[Claudius] had stood… taking cover in the darkness there.’ (Jos. AJ 19.216, monograph p. 190)
ho Phílippos… hupó tina lóphon
hupestálkei toùs Illurioùs…
‘But Philip… had sheltered the Illyrians behind a hill…’ (Plb. 5.13.5, monograph p. 190)

The monograph is a development of my PhD thesis, completed with AHRC funding at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, in 2012, which looked at the same question. The latter, however, is more empirically focused, using large datasets to generalise about the behaviour of the perfect from the macro-perspective. The present work presents a counterpoint to that project, by taking the micro-perspective, and seeking to establish, by delving into the underlying structure of the Greek language in this period, the semantic basis on which this form’s rather idiosyncratic behaviour might be described.

Crellin, Robert. 2012. The Greek Perfect Active System: 200 BC – AD 150. PhD Dissertation. University of Cambridge.

Swart, Henriette D. E. de. 1996. Meaning and Use of not … until. Journal of Semantics (13). 221–263.

Tenny, Carol. 1994. Aspectual Roles and the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Verkuyl, Henk. 1993. A Theory of Aspectuality: the Interaction between Temporal and Atemporal Structure. Cambridge: CUP.

Robert Crellin’s book, The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek, is freely accessible to members of the Philological Society via the Wiley Online Library and their membership number. Members are asked to contact one of the Society’s secretaries with any questions in this regard.