Modality in Northern Australian Kriol

Eva Schultze-Berndt, Denise Angelo, Maïa Ponsonnet

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Kriol is an English-lexified creole language which has become the lingua franca of many indigenous communities in northern Australia; its modal system has not received any in-depth treatment to date. The analysis presented here is based on fieldwork of all authors covering several Kriol-speaking regions, and on published sources. Kriol has developed a complex system of modals, consisting of preverbal markers and particles with variable position. There are obvious resemblances with English in the form of the markers and many of their uses. However, when taking a closer look at the semantic categories underlying the modal distinctions, important similarities emerge with modal systems of traditional Australian languages. Since the genesis of Kriol and, consequently, the identification of its substrate languages are a matter of debate (see Munro 2011 and Meakins 2014 for recent overviews), we take a cautious approach and consider as potential substrate features only those attested as areal features across northern Australian languages (cf. Siegel 2008). The following characteristics of the Kriol modal systems are substrate features in this sense, not shared with English: • The markers for epistemic and non-epistemic modality do not overlap. If one uses compatibility with all tenses as a criterion for identifying true epistemic modals – excluding solely future-oriented modals because of the principled undecidedness of the future (Condoravdi 2002) – it becomes evident epistemic modality in Kriol is always marked by particles (most prominently maitbi). Preverbal modal markers of possibility (mait, wana) and of necessity (labda), unlike their apparent English equivalents, do not have epistemic uses. • Kriol has a specialised apprehensive modal particle, bambai (grammaticalised from a temporal marker) which encodes an undesirable possibility to be avoided. • Modals covering deontic meanings (wana ‘might, should’ and labda ‘must, have to’) compositionally combines with past tense markers, yielding counterfactual interpretations (for this feature in Australian languages see Verstraete 2005). • Certain modal distinctions are neutralised in future-oriented negative clauses, in favour of a general irrealis marker. In Kriol, the negative possibility modal kan (< English can’t) serves as the negative counterpart of dedicated markers of participant-internal and –external possibility (gin), of deontic/teleological necessity (labda, shudbi) and of future (gata, gona). These findings should not be taken to suggest that the Kriol system of modals is a simple calque of a “typical” substrate language: the Kriol system exhibits a considerably higher number of modal distinctions than most northern Australian languages. In striking similarity to research on modality in Caribbean creole languages (e.g. Winford and Migge 2007; Essegbey et al. 2013), a nuanced picture emerges of a complex system which cannot be traced to a single origin, but reflects properties of substrate languages and the lexifier as well as independent developments.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 4 Dec 2016
EventLanguage Documentation and Linguistic Theory 5 - SOAS, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 2 Dec 20164 Dec 2016


ConferenceLanguage Documentation and Linguistic Theory 5
Abbreviated titleLDLT5
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • modality
  • Creole languages
  • Australian languages


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