9:00 am Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Dorotheenstraße 24, Room 3.134

Expressions of modality in Germanic: Competition and change

The workshop is concerned with (changes in) expressions of modality in the histories of the Germanic languages. Modality can be broadly defined as “a linguistic category referring to the factual status of a proposition” (Narrog 2012: 6) which, according to Gregersen (2020: 54), “may be broad enough to cover both the domain of possibility and necessity and a number of subjective notions often considered modal, such as the speaker’s hope or wish that the proposition is true.” These communicative goals can be achieved by a variety of expressions, that are often in competition with each other: mood (subjunctive or imperative), modal auxiliaries, or modal adverbs such as Swedish kanske ‘maybe’, that developed out of a modal auxiliary and a main verb meaning ‘to happen’ or ‘to be’. Earlier research (Diderichsen 1941, Ståhle 1958, Bjerrum 1966 & 1967) suggests that the choice between various expressions of modality depends on a number of contextual factors, such as subject type (human, animate, inanimate), person, or negation. In addition, textual function (e.g. direct or indirect instruction) may play a role (Beier et al. submitted), as may genre or register (Fritz 1997, Andersson 2007, Obe 2013, Westergaard 2020). This competition is associated with changes in distribution (e.g. between the obsolescent subjunctive and modal auxiliaries), but change is not restricted to competition. In the course of time, new modal auxiliaries (Krug 2000) or modal adverbs (Beijering & Norde 2019) emerge, modal auxiliaries change in form and / or meaning (Gregersen 2012), and so on. In order to gain a better understanding of modal expressions in older Germanic languages, of how they compete and how they change, the workshops features corpus-based studies that can be either semasiological (e.g. focusing on a specific modal or group of modals) or onomasiological (e.g. focusing on different expressions of a specific meaning) in nature, based on a single language or a comparison of two languages or more. The research questions we want to address during this workshop include:

  • How do modal auxiliaries or adverbs grammaticalise and how do they change?
  • Is there a relation between loss of the subjunctive and emergence and / or increasing frequency of modal auxiliaries?
  • Which (contextual, functional or (meta-)textual) factors determine the choice between competing expressions?
  • More specifically, is there a relation between register and (changes in) modal expressions?
  • What is the role of language contact, such as the impact of Latin on early written vernaculars?
  • What are differences and similarities between changes in modal expressions across the Germanic languages?

This workshop is organised by Muriel Norde (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Phil Beier (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Kevin Müller (Universität Zürich) and Rie Obe (Osaka University), as part of the Collaborative Research Centre «Register», funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft / German Research Foundation (SFB 1412; 416591334). The workshop is free of charge, but you are asked to register by sending an email to Phil Beier ( In our confirmation email you will also find the Zoom link to the workshop, in case you prefer to participate online.


09.00 – 09.20: Coffee

09.20 – 09.30: Introduction

09.30 – 10.15: Theresa Roth (Marburg): Expressing Modality in Gothic: Competing Strategies in a Fluid System

10.15 – 11.00: Kevin Müller (Zürich): Expressions of Modality in Early Modern German-language Swiss Legal Texts

11.00 – 11.45: Muriel Norde & Phil Beier (HU Berlin): Modal constructions in Old Swedish legal and religious texts

11.45 – 13.00: Lunch break

13.00 – 13.45: Godelieve Laureys (Gent): Weather forecasts on Danish television: ‘Probably the most modal in the world’

13.45 – 14.30: Sune Gregersen (København): From possibility to preference: The history of Danish gide ‘be able to, feel like’

14.30 – 15.00: Coffee / tea break

15.00 – 15.45: Jakob Maché (Lisboa): Grammaticalisation of need-verbs in Germanic languages

15.45 – 16.30: Lennart Westergaard (Lund) The semantics of the Danish proximal modal particles nu, da and

16.30 – 17.00: Concluding discussion

18.00: Dinner