Realistic (circumstantial) vs. general (hypothetical) possibility in Jaminjung/Ngaliwurru: Evidence for a fundamental semantic distinction

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In this paper, we argue that Jaminjung, a Western Mirndi language spoken in Northern Australia, displays a clearcut formal distinction between a realistic (circumstantial) and a hypothetical (general/stereotypical possibility) modal. These modals are verbal affixes which between them carve up the entire semantic domain of non-epistemic modality and future time reference; epistemic modality has a distinct manifestation as a modal adverb. Like a number of other non-European languages (e.g. Davis et al. 2009; Deal 2011), Jaminjung does not lexicalize modal force: it only has possibility modals.
The realistic modal has an underspecified circumstantial conversational background in the sense of Kratzer (1981; 1991: 664), as refined by Thomas (2014: 439): accessible possible worlds are compatible with the speaker’s perception of relevant facts in the actual world at the time of modal evaluation. In affirmative contexts, only this modal is compatible with additional deontic, teleological or bouletic conversational backgrounds. A typical (future-oriented) usage of the modal is illustrated in (1). This modal can also combine with past imperfective verb forms, with a past counterfactual reading.

(1) na-w-ijga warnanggal-bina, juwud=biya jarlag na-w-iyaj
2SG-CIRC-go doctor-ALL eye=then good 2SG-CIRC-be
(Discussing eye operation appointments:)
‘you should go to the doctor, your eyes will/may become (lit. be) good then’

The hypothetical modal is incompatible with tense marking. In affirmative contexts, it is employed to describe natural laws but also stereotypical behaviours of natural kinds including humans. Example (2), unlike (1), is about a hypothetical encounter with a healer and its generic features. This modal also appears in all negative modal contexts except in past tense.

(2) mayi=biya warrng-warrng yaniny-garrga, (... )
person=then RDP-walk HYP:3SG>2SG-approach
jarlag yaniny-gilinyma
good HYP:3SG>2SG-make
(Discussing methods of traditional healers:)
‘The person may walk up to you, (touch you, and) make you well’

Modals with the properties of the Jaminjung hypothetical modal have not received much attention in the linguistic literature, but may be widespread in Australian and other lesser described languages. Notions that come closest to capturing the semantics of this modal are stereotypical modality based on “the normal course of events” (Kratzer 1981: 45), DePraetere & Reed’s (2011) “general possibility”, Müller’s (2012) “abstract X-possibility”, and the aleatory uncertainty invoked in the literature on risk assessment (e.g. Paté-Cornell 1996).
The lack of interaction of the hypothetical modal with tense can be accounted for by the assumption that general possibilities are timeless (Müller 2012: 57–58). Considering realistic possibilities a subset of general possibilities (in other words, any possibility arising in the actual world has to be in line with natural laws and expected behaviours) can account for the sole use of the hypothetical modal under negation, since a negated hypothetical proposition entails the corresponding proposition involving the realistic modal.
Finally, we need to account for a further observation: the frequent use of the hypothetical modal in an apprehensional function to express possible but undesirable events, e.g. in warnings. We argue that this interpretation arises through pragmatic implicature: a possibility that is to be avoided is presented as a merely hypothetical, non-contingent possibility.

Davis, Henry, Lisa Matthewson, and Hotze Rullmann (2009), 'Out of control' marking as circumstantial modality in St'át'imcets, in L. Hogeweg, H. de Hoop, and A. Malchukov (eds), Cross-linguistic Semantics of Tense, Aspect and Modality, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 205–244.
Deal, Amy Rose (2011), Modals without Scales, Language 87(3), 559-585.
Depraetere, Ilse, and Susan Reed (2011), Towards a more explicit taxonomy of root possibility in English. English Language and Linguistics 15(1), 1–29.
Kratzer, Angelika (1981), The notional category of modality, in H.-J. Eikmeyer, and H. Rieser (eds), Words, Worlds, and Contexts, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 38-74.
Kratzer, Angelika (1991), Modality, in A. v. Stechow, and D. Wunderlich (eds), Semantik / Semantics. An International Handbook of Contemporary Research, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 639-650.
Müller, Thomas (2012), Branching in the landscape of possibilities, Synthese 188, 41–65.
Paté-Cornell, M. Elizabeth (1996), Uncertainties in risk analysis: Six levels of treatment. Reliability Engineering & System Safety 54(2-3), 95-111.
Thomas, Guillaume (2014), Circumstantial modality and the diversity condition. Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 18, 433-450.
Period23 Aug 2019
Event titleAnnual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea 2019
Event typeConference
LocationLeipzig, GermanyShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Modality
  • Typology
  • Semantics