UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 9 (1997)

Modality in language development: a reconsideration of the evidence


The set of English modal verbs is widely recognised to communicate two broad clusters of meanings: epistemic and root modal meanings. A number of researchers have claimed that root meanings are acquired earlier than epistemic ones; this claim has subsequently been employed in the linguistics literature as an argument for the position that English modal verbs are polysemous (Sweetser 1990). In this paper I offer an alternative explanation for the later emergence of epistemic interpretations by liniking them to the development of the child's theory of mind (Wellman 1990). If correct, this hypothesis might have important implications for the shape of the semantics of modal verbs.

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