Irrealis in various languages

From: Mari Broman Olsen (
Date: Wed Feb 18 1998 - 10:53:13 EST

Haven't read this carefully, but looked to be of interest.

Mari Broman Olsen
Research Associate

University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies
3141 A.V. Williams Building
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

PHONE: (301) 405-6754 FAX: (301) 314-9658

LINGUIST List: Vol-9-241. Wed Feb 18 1998. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Date: Wed, 18 Feb 1998 15:22:55 +0700
From: (Claire Bowern)
Subject: Summary of Irrealis Discussion

This is a summary of the work I have been doing on irrealis. The text
is a highly edited version of a seminar I gave a week ago at ANU. The
findings are based on the survey I posted to the Linguist List a few
weeks ago and joint research with Keira Ballantyne, another research
student at the ANU's Centre for Linguistic Typology. Comments,
criticisms and offers of further data are very welcome indeed. Please
reply to me at

Background Terminology.

Modality is the semantic category which shows the speaker's attitude
to a particular proposition. This category contains a number of
semantic properties which are frequently grammaticalised. While the
number of "speaker attitudes" which can be expressed are practically
infinite, the number which are grammaticalised are considerable
fewer. Irrealis here means the formal marking of modality (and,
incidentally, of other areas of grammar).


We began by examining every possible meaning that the marker or
markers of modality could have. We looked at languages from Europe,
Australia, Africa, North America, mainland Asia and the Pacific. This
process is continuing but from the 35 languages which we have looked
at so far we have found 6 common modalities - potentiative,
counterfactual, jussive, prohibitive, volitive and apprehensive.
Other meanings may be marked by irrealis markers (such as negative
sentences and interrogatives) but these are by far the most common.


The terms for modality which I have used are "umbrella" terms for a
number of different specific meanings in individual languages. The
"potentiative", for example, covers notions of possibility (or even
probability), ability and sometimes also future tense. The jussive
covers permission, obligation and imperative. The volitive is the
modality of wishes- these include both fulfilled and unfulfilled
wishes as well as categories such as the hortative and
precative. While categories may not be exactly equivalent in different
languages (an obligative, for example, could imply more obligation in
one language than in another), this is not seen as invalidating the
definition. The terms used cover a *type* of speaker-attitude, not a
full definition. These modality types fall naturally into three
groups: {potentiative/counterfactual}, {jussive/prohibitive} and
{volitive/apprehensive}. The second term in the list is the
semantically negated equivalent to the first term. In many cases it
is also the morphologically negated equivalent - as in English
imperatives. In other languages, however, the marking is different. A
nice example of this is the Polynesian language Tokelau, where
aversives and apprehensives cannot be inflected for negative polarity.


Not all languages have grammaticalised all these categories; nor are
all categories represented as irrealis in all languages. In Caddo,
for example, bound pronouns and reality are marked together, in
compound morphemes. The irrealis pronominal prefixes cannot be used
for potential or desiderative meaning. The potential is marked by a
set of prepronominal prefixes which take realis, not irrealis,
prefixes (Wally Chafe pc). Some languages may make multiple
distinctions within these categories. In Yindjibarndi, for example,
there are two markers of potential, indicating that the event is more
likely or less likely to occur. Another example of this would be the
different levels of imperatives that one finds in some languages. Awa
Pit, for example, has unmarked imperative suffixes for singular and
plural -ti and -tayN, and also a polite imperative -n(a)ka. There
are, of course, many other examples. Finally, not all the categories
in the table need be marked by the same phonological material. I have
been speaking most of the time in terms of an "irrealis" suffix which
can mark one or more of these meanings, but this need not be the
case. Ancient Greek, for example, had two suffixes which were used
both for modality marking and for other functions (such as subordinate
clause marking). My investigations have been in terms of the marking
of modality in general, and I have not had time to look at how
different sub-sets of modality are marked if there is more than one
marker. A brief glance over the material did not yield any obvious

The Irrealis Hierarchy.

I would like to propose two hypothesis regarding the marking of
modality as irrealis vs realis. The first holds true for all languages
investigated; the second could be said to be a strong tendency, for we
have found an exception (although it is an exception for interesting
historical reasons).

* If a negative modality is marked by the irrealis, then the
corresponding positive modality is also marked by the irrealis.

* If a category on the hierarchy is marked by the irrealis in a
particular language, then all other modal categories which are marked
in the language and occur higher on the hierarchy are likewise marked
by the irrealis.

The hierarchy is (from L to R):

Potential/Impossible > Jussive/Prohibitive > Volitive/Apprehensive

No exceptions have been found to the first hypothesis. If, for
example, the language has an apprehensive/aversive use of the
irrealis, then there will also be a desiderative use. This is found
in the Nyulnyulan languages of the Kimberley, for example. If there
is a prohibitive, there will be an imperative or obligative. This may
be illustrated from Latin, where both prohibitives and
obligatives/imperatives may be expressed using the indicative or the
subjunctive. The second hypothesis of hierarchical ordering of
modality meanings implies the following. If a language marks a
particular modality for irrealis then it will mark everything to the
left of the hierarchy for irrealis also. So if a language marks
volition with the irrealis, then it will also mark potential events
and commands for irrealis. It does not follow, however, that if a
language marks volitive for irrealis it must also have irrealis
prohibitions; nor that if there are irrealis prohibitions there are
irrealis frustratives or counterfactuals. The negated modality types
could be thought of as off-shoots from the main modality hierarchy. A
negated type implies not only the corresponding positive modality
type, but also the positive modalities further up the hierarchy. It
does not, however, imply the negated types above it in the hierarchy.
Thus Latin has a prohibitive modality, a jussive modality and a
potentiative modality, but no "impossibilitive".

Now, we have thus far found one demonstrable exception to this
hierarchy, although there are a number of languages where lack of data
has meant that it cannot be verified. Caddo is spoken in the area
which is now eastern Texas, northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas.
The data come from Chafe's article in Bybee and Fleischman (1995) and
from my bothering him via E-mail. Caddo has two sets of pronominal
prefixes, one of which is used for interrogatives, negatives,
prohibitions, obligations, conditions, simulative comparisons ("as
if"), for infrequent actions and for expressing events which are
surprising or contrary to expectation. This set is the irrealis set.
The other prefixes are used elsewhere, and this elsewhere includes
imperatives, future tense and potential modality. This clearly
contravenes the hierarchy, since we expect that if there is irrealis
marking of modality, if will occur in the potential category if it
occurs anywhere. I have no way of fitting Caddo into the hierarchy; it
would appear to be a clear counter example. Nonetheless, it is the
only one found so far. More work needs to be done, therefore, in
investigating other possible exceptions.

Conclusions and the next stage of the project.

Modality may be defined as the set of "speaker attitudes" which are
grammaticalised in languages. The set of such types is quite small;
only six (or fewer) distinctions are regularly made in languages which
have such marking. Occasionally other modality types are found, but
these are quite rare. The hierarchy of irrealis modality allows us to
make some predictions about the types of modality which will be marked
by the irrealis. The next stages of the project are: to look at
irrealis marking outside modality (in subordinate clauses, in
interrogative and negated clauses, etc) and to look at languages where
there is more than one irrealis marker. It seems from preliminary
work that there is no regular grouping of modality types with
particular markers, but a wider examination may show some trends.


Bybee, J and Fleischman, S (Eds, 1995); Modality in Grammar and
Discourse. John Benjamins. Typological Studies in Language: 32.

Claire Bowern
Centre for Linguistic Typology
Australian National University,

18th February, 1998.

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