Modality and subordinators

Modality and subordinators. By Jackie Nordström. (Studies in language companion series 116.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Pp. xvii, 341. ISBN 9789027205834. $158 (Hb).

Reviewed by Dimitrios Ntelitheos, United Arab Emirates University

This book treats subordinators as modal markers, with general subordinators expressing propositional modality, the speaker’s attitude to the truth value of the proposition. The book is divided into eleven chapters. The first chapter introduces the main topic of subordination as propositional modality and provides a brief discussion of the research paradigms, the methodology, and the materials used. Chs. 2–4 present a typological study of modality and subordinators, while Chs. 5–10 treat the same structures within the Germanic languages.

Ch. 2 discusses the general issue of modality and explains the terms and definitions used. Modality is divided into three categories: speech-act, propositional, and event modality, with a focus on the second. Crosslinguistic data are adduced to argue against a super-category of Modality as being too vague conceptually. Ch. 3 discusses the morphosyntactic status of propositional modality, presenting two new typological surveys. If subordinators express propositional modality, then modality markers should be able to take scope over the finite proposition, including tense. The surveys show that across languages modality markers occur outside tense nine times more often than inside it. Ch. 4 discusses the relation between subordinators and modality. N argues that complementizers denote factuality, which is distinct from speech-act modality. This is supported by surveys showing that complementizers often denote modal distinctions and is further strengthened in Ch. 5 with the robust typological observation that there are many markers of realis-irrealis mood that double as subordinators.

Ch. 6 treats the Germanic indicative and subjunctive as propositional modality markers. Ch. 7 moves to the distribution of modal markers and word order in Germanic languages. Languages lacking the indicative-subjunctive distinction still maintain propositional modality as a functional category of the verb. In Ch. 8 then presents her main proposal that general subordinators like that and if lexicalize propositional modality; that is mainly used when the speaker presupposes that the proposition is true or presented as true. Ch. 9 moves to speech-act modality, while Chapter 10 discusses the status of relative and adverbial subordinators. The former are treated on a par with general subordinators (and thus propositional modality markers), while the latter belong to different functional categories. Ch. 11 provides overall concluding remarks for the book. There follow two appendices presenting N’s typological surveys of the morphosyntactic status of propositional modality and her sources.

This book provides a novel account of the status of general subordinators. There is a detailed literature review of modality and subordination, and N provides rich typological data, some new, to support her main proposal. It is essential reading for anyone interested in subordination and modality, whether coming from a typological/functional or a purely formal theoretical background.