A systemic functional study of modality in modern Chinese


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Shu YANG


Awarding Institution
Award date15 Jul 2014


There is no doubt that modality in English has been extensively researched and almost every influential linguistic school in the contemporary world has made its own contribution to it. However, modality in Chinese has been much less explored and is still a problematic category. There are divergent views on the definition and classification of modality and on the identification of modal verbs. The analysis of realizations of modality to date has tended to focus on modal verbs and adverbs, with other means unaccounted for. In addition, the functions that modal expressions serve in the clause of Chinese are only briefly touched upon and therefore are worthy of further systematic examination. The present research aims to provide a systematic and relatively comprehensive account of modality in Modern Chinese from the perspective of Systemic Functional Linguistics. It intends to establish the system of modality in Chinese, examine realizations derived from the system, and investigate the functions that modal realizations serve in the clause and clause complex in Chinese. The research is functional rather than formal in orientation. It interprets the system of modality and modal realizations by reference to how they are used in authentic texts. It is also descriptive and qualitative in nature, although the frequency of some modal expressions will be considered so as to present a more accurate picture of realizations of modality. The principal findings of the research are summarized below. Firstly, the system of modality is placed in the interpersonal system of the language of Chinese. In terms of the system of types of modality, there are four major types of modality identified in Chinese, obligation, inclination, ability and probability. Obligation is subdivided into three types: compulsion, expectation and permission, which respectively signal the high, median and low degrees of obligation on the hearer to perform an action. Inclination includes three subcategories as well, namely determination, willingness and desire, representing the subject's high, median and low degrees of inclination to fulfill an action. Ability distinguishes between knowing now and internal ability. These three major types of modality are concerned with the potential action, typically realized by modal verbs. Probability is concerned with the speaker's judgment of the validity of the proposition. It comprises three subtypes: certainty, median probability, and possibility. They are predominantly realized by modal verbs and adverbs. In the interpersonal structure of the clause in Chinese, modal verbs and modal adverbs function as the Adjunct in the clause. Secondly, with regard to the system of modal orientations, there are explicit and implicit ways of realizing modality. Implicit modality is expressed by modal verbs and adverbs. They are congruent realizations of modality, as the modal assessment is coded as an element within the clause and is not experientialized. Explicit subjective modality is typically realized by a "modal clause" that consists of a first person pronoun and a verbal group, such as wǒ rènwéi and wǒ kàn, and a construction that contains a coverbal phrase and a verbal group such as yī wǒ kànlái and zhào wǒ kànlái. They both function as modal adjuncts in the clause. Explicit objective modality is expressed by a verbal group that functions as a modal adjunct in the clause and also by a nominalization that functions as a thing in the relational process. Explicit subjective and objective modalities are treated as metaphorical forms of modality, as modality is being experientialized. Thirdly, modal realizations can function in the textual structure of the clause as the Theme and the information focus. Modal adverbs, "modal clauses" and modal nouns can serve as the Theme of the clause, indicating the speaker's modal evaluation of the proposition. In the information structure, some modal verbs of willingness and ability, as well as modal nouns can be placed at the end of the clause as the unmarked information focus. Modal verbs of compulsion and expectation can occur at the beginning or in the middle of the clause before the Subject and signal the following Subject as the focus of the information. Lastly, modal realizations can function as markers indicating the logico-semantic relation of expansion between clauses in the clause complex. They express modal meanings and simultaneously construct clauses into a clause complex. Modal adjuncts and verbs of possibility can mark the alternative relationship between clauses in the clause complex. The reason that they can signal this relation lies in the fact that when such expressions indicate the proposition may be true, they simultaneously implicate that the proposition may not be true. Modal verbs of compulsion and expectation can be used in the primary clause of the clause complex to mark the logico-semantic relation of condition. The reason that they can indicate such a relation can be attributed to the fact that they indicate the necessity of an action. The modal expressions may be viewed as "marked" markers of logico-semantic relations. In conclusion, the present study demonstrates that Systemic Functional Linguistics is a sound framework that is able to present a reliable description of the system of modality in Modern Chinese. In terms of pedagogy, the research may shed some light on the teaching of modal expressions in Chinese.

    Research areas

  • Modality, Modality (Linguistics), Chinese language