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Pragmatics of modals

When used in conversational interaction, modal verbs may take on special functions in speech acts such as granting permission, giving directives, making promises and expressing wishes, thereby bringing about change in the pragmatic relationship between speaker and addressee. Thus ‘volition’ and ‘prediction’ may be used to express a personal commitment, as in:

Example 1

a. Ek wíl vandag die prys wen!
I want.to.PRS today the prize win
I want to win the prize today!
b. Ons sál die oorwinning behaal!
we shall.PRS the victory attain
We shall be victorious!

‘Possibility’ ascribed to the addressee may become an invitation:

Example 2

Julle kan gerus van die toebroodjies kry.
you.PL can.PRS freely of the sandwiches get
You are free to have some sandwiches.

‘Permission’ is expressed by:

Example 3

U kan maar die vergadering verdaag.
you.FORMAL can.PRS ADV the meeting adjourn
You may adjourn the meeting.

Questioned ‘ability’ may form part of a request:

Example 4

a. Kan jy asseblief die sout aangee?
can.PRS you.SG please the salt pass
Could you please pass the salt?
b. Kan ek sommer saam met jou ry?
can.PRS I just together with you.SG ride
Could I perhaps get a lift with you?
I. Roggeband, Noot, 2013:145
c. Kan ek vir jou iets kry om te drink?
can.PRS I for you.SG something get COMP to drink
Can I get you something to drink?
I. Roggeband, Noot, 2013:79

Requests and other speech acts are mitigated by the preterite form koncould, as in:

Example 5

a. Kon ek dalk vanmiddag 'n bietjie vroeër gaan?
can.PRT I perhaps this-afternoon a little earlier go
Could I perhaps leave a little earlier this afternoon?
b. Jy kon maar saamneem wat nie gebruik is nie.
you.SG can.PRT ADV with-take what NEG use.PST.PTCP be.AUX.PASS.PST NEG
You could take with you what hasn’t been used.

Moet must may constitute a command (6a) and moenie must-NEG a request or prohibition (6b) if directed at the addressee, as in:

Example 6

a. Jy moet jou sokkies optrek!
you.SG must.PRS your socks up-pull
You must get your act together!’
b. Julle moenie daardie deur gebruik nie!
you.PL must-NEG that door use NEG
Don't use that door!

If the speaker wishes to cancel or relax the necessity of the action, hoef ... te need may be used, as in:

Example 7

Julle hoef nie die vergadering by te woon nie.
you.PL need NEG the meeting at to attend NEG
You needn’t attend the meeting.

A prediction can become a promise, as in:

Example 8

Ek sal môre die inbetaling doen.
I will.PRS tomorrow the deposit do
I’ll make the deposit tomorrow.

If a future action is foisted on the addressee as if it were a certainty, the result may be as forceful as a command. This interpretation is ensured by adding emphasis to sal.

Example 9

a. Jy sál die deur sluit!
you shall.PRS the door lock
You shall lock the door!
b. Hy sál uit sy bed uit en hy sál hier onder saam met my kuier.
he shall.PRS out his bed out and he shall.PRS here below together with me chat
He shall get out of his bed and he shall keep me company down here.
F. Bloemhof, Doodskoot, 2016:210

Sal, also mitigated by the preterite sou, would serve as a polite request:

Example 10

a. Sal jy asseblief die deur sluit?
will.PRS you.SG please the door lock
Will you please lock the door?
b. Sou jy dalk vir verkiesing beskikbaar wees?
will.PRT you.SG perhaps for election available be.INF
Would you perhaps be available for election?

Mag may and moet must are employed in wishes, the latter more colloquially:

Example 11

a. Mag julle van krag tot krag gaan!
may.PRS you.PL from strength to strength go
May you go from strength to strength!
b. Julle moet mooi ry!
you.PL must.PRS nicely drive
Have a good trip!

Modal verbs take on new meanings when when used in speech acts. Speech acts go beyond the mere exchange of information and have pragmatic implications for the speaker or addressee or the relation between them. 

The expression of ‘will’ may become  a ‘commitment’ even when directed by the speaker at him-/herself:

Example 12

a. Ek wíl vandag die prys wen!
I want.to.PRS today the prize win
I shall win the prize today!

'Will’ may be projected on an addressee, as in the case of a sculptor about to destroy a bust he has made in anger:

Example 13

Maar hoor hier, jy wil nie regtig hierdie borsbeeld beskadig nie!”
But listen here you.SG want.to.PRS NEG really this bust damage NEG
Listen to me now: you don’t really want to damage this bust!
M. Heese, Maestro, 2016:430

Wil is used in a polite request, as in (14a), mitigated by the negative without a change of meaning, as in (14b).

Example 14

a. Wil jy asseblief die skinkbord neem?
will.PRS you.SG please the tray take
Will you please take the tray?
b. Wil jy nie asseblief die skinkbord neem nie?
will.PRT you.SG NEG please the tray take NEG
Won’t you please take the tray?

If a host insists on the ‘possibility’ of extending a visit, this may count as an ‘invitation’:

Example 15

Julle kan gerus nog 'n bietjie langer kuier!
you.PL can.PRS surely even a little longer visit
Surely you can stay a little longer!

Informing the addressee that there is no objection to an action envisaged by him/her is tantamount to granting ‘permission’ (16a) or may even be a threat (16b):

Example 16

a. Elsie, jy kan daardie vir jou vat as jy dit wil hê.
Elsie you.SG can.PRS that for you.SG take if you.SG it want.to.PRS have.INF
Elsie, you may have that if you want it.
b. Julle kan maar uitkom, ons sal julle tog kry.”
you.PL can.PRS freely out-come we will.PRS you.PL anyway get
You may come out now;  we will find you anyway.
H. du Plessis, As die wind, 2013:208

By suggesting a certain readiness to perform an action the speaker may be offering to perform the action:

Example 17

Ons kan die onderdeel vir u bestel.
we can.PRS the component for you.FORMAL order
We can order the component for you.

In the context of a meal, a question such as the following is, through a process of inferencing, conventionally understood as a request.

Example 18

Kan ek so 'n bietjie rys kry?
can.PRS I so a little rice have
May I have some rice?

Kon is used instead of kan to make a suggestion (19a), offer (19b) or request (19c) sound more tentative:

Example 19

a. Julle kon gerus nog 'n bietjie langer kuier!
you.PL can.PRT surely still a little longer stay
You should feel free to stay a little longer!
b. Ons kon die onderdeel vir u bestel.
we can.PRT the component for you.FORMAL order
We could order the component for you.
c. Kon ek dalk nog 'n bietjie kry?
can.PRT I perhaps still a little have
Could I perhaps have a little more?

Sham permission may be employed to express praise:

Example 20

Jy kan maar bak!
you.SG can.PRS ADV bake
You really bake well!

An 'obligation' ascribed by a speaker to an addressee, amounts to a request. In speech acts, moet is therefore usually a directive, an act whereby the speaker attempts to get the hearer to do something(Archer, Aijmer& Wichman 2012:39).  

Example 21

Julle moet asseblief die vergadering bywoon.
you.PL must.PRS please the meeting attend
You must please attend the meeting.

In (22), the speaker applies the directive to herself:

Example 22

Hy het gesê dis lozenges vir my keel, ek moet sommer twee vat.
he have.AUX PST.PTCP-say it-is lozenges for my throat I must.PRS just two take
He said they were lozenges for my throat, I should feel free to take two.
F. Smith, Kamphoer, 2014:157

If the obligation is explicitly removed, prohibition may result, as in (23). As a speech act, a prohibitive remains a request or directive.

Example 23

Julle moenie die vergadering bywoon nie.
you.PL must-NEG the meeting attend NEG
You shouldn’t attend the meeting.

As the conventionalised form of the prohibitive in Afrikaans (see moet under Root meanings), the illocutive force of moenie equals that of an imperative:

Example 24

Moenie daardie deur gebruik nie!
must-NEG that door use NEG
Don’t use that door!

If the speaker wishes to cancel or relax the necessity of the action, hoef ... te may be used, as in:

Example 25

Jy hoef mos nie dadelik te gaan nie, Johannes.
you.SG need surely NEG immediately to go NEG Johannes
Surely you don’t need to leave immediately, Johannes.
W. Odendaal, Landskap, 2009:32

A confession may be mitigated by feigning obligation:

Example 26

Ek moet darem erken ...
I must.PRS all.the.same admit
I must admit, all the same ...
G. Taljaard, Engel, 2009:41

A commissive is a speech act in which the speaker commits him/herself to do some future act(Archer et al. 2012:39). This may have its origin in an intention directed at the addressee, and have the force of a promise:

Example 27

Ek sal later sommer self met hom praat.
I will.PRS later ADV self with him talk
I will just talk to him myself later on.
J. Kirsten, Wit plafon, 2009:161

When the prediction is made directly applicable to the addressee instead, thereby raising its status to that of a faît accompli in the addressee’s future, this may result in a directive of considerable force. The speaker’s intention is emphasized prosodically:

Example 28

a. Jy sál die deur sluit!
you.SG shall.PRS the door lock
You shall lock the door!
b. Julle sál nou drie maal om die veld hardloop!
you.PL shall.PRS now three times around the field run
You shall run around the field three times now!
c. “Jy sal jou nou gedra,” sê Pietro afgemete.
you.SG shall.PRS you.SG.REFL now behave say.PRS Pietro measured
You shall behave now, Pietro said in measured tones.
M. Heese, Maestro, 2016:68

An unlikely outcome is the vehicle for indignation in:

Example 29

Sy sal haar tog deur oom Petrus laat vertel waar sy moet slaap!
she will.PRS her surely by uncle Petrus let tell where she must.PRS sleep
She certainly wouldn’t have uncle Petrus tell her where she must sleep!
J.M. Gilfillan, Glas, 2007:89

To mitigate requests or for the sake of politeness, questions containing sal or its preterite form sou are used. The addressee is given time to consider the request, hence the future projection of sal, while sou allows the addressee even more freedom by making the request more tentative. The addressee is afforded an opportunity to make a prediction of the speaker come true. Further mitigation may be introduced by appealing to the addressee’s ability (by kan/kon ) to fulfill the request. This may be accompanied by non-verbs, such as the particle of polite request, asseblief please, an emotive epithet such as ou old and the – perhaps slightly ironical – use of the diminutive, as in gunsie favour.DIM:

Example 30

a. Sal jy asseblief die deur sluit?
will.PRS you.SG please the door lock
Will you please lock the door?
b. Sou jy dié ou gunsie vir my kon doen?
will.PRT you.SG this old favour.DIM for me can.PRT do
Would you kindly do me this favour?

Sou is used in a slightly ironical/emotive (disgruntled) way in a fixed expression:

Example 31

Ek sou so dink!
I will.PRT so think
I should think so!

Wishes are expressed somewhat formally by mag, in a formulaic construction requiring inversion, and only have the force of a wish when directed at an addressee:

Example 32

Mag dit aan al jou verwagtinge voldoen!
may.PRS it to all your expectations fulfil
May it come up to all your expectations!

In informal interaction wishes are expressed by means of declaratives with moet must, which derive their force from the urgency of ‘obligation’:

Example 33

Julle moet veilig ry!
you.PL must.PRS safely drive
Drive safely!

The wish in the following derives its urgency from the inherent ‘prohibition’:

Example 34

Dit moenie môre reën nie!
it must-NEG tomorrow rain NEG
It musn’t rain tomorrow!
  • Archer, D., Aijmer, K. & Wichman, A2012PragmaticsRoutledge
  • Archer, D., Aijmer, K. & Wichman, A2012PragmaticsRoutledge
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