Modal polyfunctionality and German modals revisited


  • Dagmar Masár Machová Tomas Bata University in Zlín, Czech Republic



polyfunctionality, modal, grammaticalization, German, definition of modality


This paper points out that there is presently no consistent definition of German modals, nor is there any agreement as to which verbs should be categorized as modals. The paper suggests that modals should be defined based on modal polyfunctionality, i.e. the ability to express both root and epistemic readings. Applying this definition, the paper states that besides canonical dürfen ‘be
allowed to’, können ‘can’, mögen ‘may’, müssen ‘must’, sollen ‘should’, wollen ‘want’, verbs werden ‘will’ and brauchen ‘need’ are to be considered modals as well, since they semantically behave as standard modals. More specifically, they are both capable of expressing both root and epistemic modalities. Furthermore, the paper proposes that the absence of agreement in 1st and 3rd person singular in modals such as in ich/er mussØ ‘I/he must’ cannot be solely attributed to their preterite-present origin of modals, but is related to the synchronic definition of modals, i.e. their polyfunctionality as a result of paradigmatic coherence. In addition to exploring the central modals, the paper investigates the paradigms of brauchen ‘need’, as well as werden ‘will’, suggesting that they might be aligning with the central modals in terms of their agreement morphology as well. Since being theoretical, the paper’s arguments are supported by the examples from the texts referenced in literature or produced by native speakers of German.