Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sweetser: From etymology to pragmatics (1990), ch. 3

Chapter 3 of Eve Sweetser's insightful 1990 book contains an analysis of the English modal verbs may, must, shall, will, can, etc. She claims that their epistemic meanings are derived from a set of more basic meanings, which includes the deontic ones.

The Order of Domains

It is not yet entirely clear to me whether she thinks that the deontic meanings (e.g., You may kiss the bride) can be learned without any metaphorical scaffolding. She draws a lot of inspiration from Lenord Talmy (1988), who thinks that both deontic and epistemic thought are fueled by analogies to physical barriers, blocks, and forces. This seems to suggest the following ordering:

Physical obstacles  >  Social obstacles  >  Logical obstacles

This works pretty well for a word like may, which is historically derived from a Middle English term referring to physical strength and capability. Sweetser further cites some evidence that children learn the deontic senses before the epistemic ones (p. 50).

Messy Domain Orderings: let

But it is the first link, physical > social, which is causing me some problems. Sweetser herself gives some examples (p. 52) that potentially subvert her theory:
  • The crack in the stone let the water flow through.
  • I begged Mary to let me have another cookie.
My intuition about these examples is that there is a kind of personification going on in the first sentence: We picture the stone as an agent which may or may not give the water permission to flow. If that intuition holds, the physical meaning of let is an extension of the deontic.

As far as I know, no ancestor of the English language (that we have any written records of) contain only one of these senses. To be fair, let is, speculatively, hypothesized to be derived from a word meaning roughly "loosen." But a historical case for the derivation from physical to deontic would probably be relatively weak.

Messy Domain Orderings: have to

Another set of examples with similar problems concerns the verb have (p. 53):
  • I have to stay home, or Mom will get mad at me.
  • I have to stay home tonight to study for the test.
In at least Ronald Langacker's equally "cognitive" analysis, the verb have primarily refers to possession. Again, this sense seems to follow the Indoeuropean languages as far back as we have written sources (despite a speculative derivation from a word meaning "grasp").

How do children learn the concept of possession – always through relating it to holding something in the hand? And do they make this connection when they learn the word have? Certainly, I can have my keys in my hand, but is this more basic than I have some cash?

And more specifically, is the deontic sense of have to more basic than the sense of have as "possess"? Historically, have to seems to have been a quite late derivation which initially drew its meaning out of the idea that one can have (= possess) a duty.

If this historical trajectory has any parallel in present-day adult cognition, it would suggest that we understand I have to go by translating it into a duty, then into a possession, and then into holding something in the hand. The question is whether that operation yields anything more intelligible than the concept of necessity that we began with.

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