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The ambiguity of the post-verbal modal morpheme DE in Sichuanese

  • Ye Hu
Wednesday 29 May 2024
Chinese Linguistics in Leiden (ChiLL)
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


In this work I investigate the post-verbal modal marker DE in Sichuanese (a southwestern Mandarin variety), which, at a first sight, seems to be highly ambiguous among various root modal readings when appearing in the [V-DE] construction (see (1)). Based on a recent fieldwork on Sichuanese, I will show first how Sichuanese DE in [V-DE] construction differs from its Standard Mandarin counterpart. Subsequently, I will concentrate on Sichuanese and show that the various modal readings are not “squeezed” into the single morpheme DE, but rather are structurally distinct and mark several syntactic positions.

(1) Zang1san1 ho1    de2    pi2jiu3.

      Zhangsan drink DE   beer

a. ‘Zhangsan can drink beer (e.g. he is in a good state of health).’                       pure possibility 

b. ‘Zhangsan is permitted (by someone) to drink beer.’                                                  permission

c. ‘Zhangsan is quite able to drink beer.’                                                                       focus on ability

Based on the collected data, I will argue that a) DE is not a highly ambiguous modal marker, but just an alethic modal marker (Von Wright 1951) that expresses an underspecified ‘pure possibility’ reading; b) the various modal readings are marked by its co-occurrence with higher disambiguating elements in the functional domain.

To better represent the “compositional strategy”, I follow Cinque (1999, 2006) in adopting a cartographic approach to the clausal structure and argue for the following root modal hierarchy by adding a ModPAlethic(II) lower than all root modal projections:

(2) [ModPObligation  gai [NegP bu [ModPAbility (da) [ModPPermission koyi [ModPAlethic(II) DE]]]]].

The hierarchy in (2) is supported by the availability of the following disambiguating elements:

i) canonical pre-verbal modal auxiliaries koyi ‘can’ for a deontic ‘possibility’ reading; ii) the sentence-final particle lao, which expresses speaker’s attitude and activates the weak ‘necessity’ modal gai ‘should’; iii) an (overt/covert) functional degree adverb da ‘big/very’ for the ‘strong ability’ reading. Moreover, the basic negative form [V-bu-DE] can only have ‘not possible’ and ‘necessary not’ readings, suggesting that the negative morpheme bu has rigid scope as shown in “necessity> bu >possibility”. It therefore stays lower than ModPObligation, where root necessity is encoded, and higher than all the projections encoding root possibility, as will be illustrated by empirical data from the fieldwork.

Summing up, the “ambiguity” of DE can be solved by the “compositional strategy” used in Sichuanese modal system. It further provides strong empirical support for Cinque’s (1999, 2006) root modal hierarchy, showing how modality is universally structurally encoded.

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