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Abstract Cuyckens & van Linden

The development of deontic meaning in adjectives: The role of conceptual metonymy, invited inferencing, and subjectification

The semantic development of modal auxiliaries is a well-researched topic in Cognitive Linguistics (see, for instance, Traugott 1989, Sweetser 1990, Traugott & Dasher 2002). In particular, it has been shown that semantic change in modal auxiliaries is characterized by a process of increasing subjectivity (in the deontic and epistemic realm), a metonymically based mechanism (see, e.g., Traugott & Dasher 2002: 29).

The development of modal meanings in adjectival predicates, in contrast, has received little or no attention (some synchronic accounts are Nuyts 1993, 2000). In this paper, we investigate the development of deontic meaning in the adjectives essential, crucial, vital, and critical. (As a working definition, we take deontic modality to express the degree of desirability of a certain State of Affairs; more specifically, in a deontic utterance, a modal source (e.g., the speaker) assesses the desirability for an agent to carry out a particular action). Present-day English examples of essential and crucial in deontic utterances are given in (1)-(2):

(1) … it is essential to remember that most of the research has been conducted in one particular country, namely in the USA … (CB)

(2) It is crucial that the countryside get proper recognition and support from all political parties. (CB)

For each of the adjectives, it will be shown how the mechanisms of invited inferencing and subjectification (both of which can be assumed under the rubric of ‘conceptual metonymy’) can play a role in the development of these adjectives. As such, the meaning ‘constituting the true nature of’ of the adjective essential (cf. 3), for instance, will be shown to serve as a bridging context for the meaning ‘necessity inherent in’ or ‘indispensable for’ (cf. 4); indeed, properties that constitute the true nature of an entity are, at the same time, necessary/indispensable for that entity. In turn, a necessity inherent in an SoA, can in certain contexts, also be interpreted as something desirable or necessary on SoA-external grounds, i.e., become a speaker-dependent necessity. In this case, then, the adjective will have been subject to the semasiological process of subjectification. Similar lines of development will be set up for crucial, vital, and critical. Language data will be taken from the relevant historical and synchronic corpora, e.g., Helsinki Corpus, OED, Corpus of Late Modern English Texts (CLMET), Collins Cobuild Corpus (CB).

(3) Heate is the essentiall propertie of fire (OED 1620).

(4) It is said that the water and the sand of the Tagus are essential for the proper tempering of the swords. (CLMET 1780-1850).

(5) It is essential that parents take an interest in their kids’ viewing habits and understand what they are watching and have conversations about it. (CB).

In general then, this investigation into the development of deontic meaning in adjectives seeks to further document the role of conceptual metonymy in semantic change, as it manifests itself through the mechanisms of invited inferencing and subjectification.



NUYTS, J. 1993. Modality and the layered representation of conceptual and linguistic structure. Linguistics 31: 933-969. —NUYTS, J. 2000. Epistemic modality, language and conceptualisation. A cognitive-pragmatic perspective. Amsterdam: Benjamins—SWEETSER, E. 1990. From Etymology to Pragmatics. Cambridge: C.U.P. —TRAUGOTT, E. C. 1989. On the rise of epistemic meanings in English: An exemplification of subjectification in semantic change. Language 65: 31-35. —TRAUGOTT, E. C. and R. B. DASHER. 2002. Regularity in Semantic Change. Cambridge: C.U.P.