The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 4/18 - Bronwyn M. Bjorkman

Speaker: Bronwyn M. Bjorkman (University of Toronto)
Title: Possession and necessity: from individuals to worlds
Date/Time: Thursday, Apr 18, 12:30-1:45p Location: 32-D461

(Joint work with Elizabeth Cowper.)

The modal use of possession is well known from the “semi-modal” ‘have (to)’, but is not unique to English: the same broadening from possession to necessity is found in many languages, including Spanish, Catalan, German, and Hindi (Bhatt 1997). We argue that this grammaticalization path is available because possession and necessity are both built on a prepositional relation of containment or inclusion. In possession this relation holds between individuals, in necessity between sets of worlds corresponding to the modal base and the proposition.

Many have proposed that the syntax of possession is prepositional, and that verbal have (and its counterparts in other languages) occurs when the possessive preposition occurs where be would otherwise appear (Freeze 1992, Kayne 1993, a.o.). Levinson (2011) has recently argued that this possessive preposition should be identified as (non-locative) WITH, expressing a relation of inclusion or containment. We argue that this relation of containment or inclusion also appears in the composition of universal modality, but between sets of worlds rather than individuals. A modal operator composes first with a modal base (i.e. a set of epistemically or deontically accessible worlds), and then with a proposition (also modelled as a set of worlds). A universal modal operator requires that a proposition be true in all accessible worlds—-i.e. the set of worlds corresponding to the modal base must be a subset of the set of worlds corresponding to the proposition.

This subset relation mirrors the inclusion/containment relation expressed by possessive WITH. It is this common semantic core, we propose, that is reflected by the grammaticalization of ‘have’ from possession to necessity.