Dienstag, 23. März 2010

"The term paper threatened to be a disaster"?

I keep telling people I'm not a linguist.

No doubt that's why I'm writing a linguistics paper this semester on the English verbs "threaten" and "promise" -- and for a seminar on German modal verbs at that. (Perfectly logical connection, I know.)

I had intended to write a paper for a different course on theories of tragedy -- a nice straightforward analysis of whether Aristotle's Poetics forms a logically consistent theory. A subject which I actually know something about. But...one thing led to another and my masochistic impulses won out and so here I am writing a paper which is threatening to turn into something quite different than I had planned.

I was foolish enough to visit the professor in her office hours with a couple of questions and allowed myself to be talked into writing a paper. (I should have known better than to go in quest of knowledge. One always regrets it, I assure you.)

First a bit of background: The German verbs drohen and versprechen (and their English equivalents threaten and promise) have a second meaning besides their lexical usage to refer to speech acts (of the sort "The boss is threatening to fire the employee."). This second usage instead makes a prediction about impending events: "The storm is threatening to destroy the harvest." There's a debate in the scholarly literature about whether this usage should be understood as epistemic and quasi-modal (thus belonging to a class with verbs such as seem, which evaluate the likelihood of a statement based on the speaker's knowledge), or as aspectual verbs (in German "Phasenverben") such as begin or continue which focus on a specific stage of an event. That is, it is unclear whether a sentence such as that above indicates a belief based on unspecified evidence that it is likely the harvest will be destroyed, or a description of an event which is already occurring (the fields are starting to show damage).

My idea for the paper was based on an insight that certain characteristics of the English verb system could be used to help solve this problem. Unlike German, English has progressive as well as simple present tense forms. Now, modal verbs -- in both epistemic and deontic usages -- normally cannot form the progressive. We can't say: *He is seeming to be sick. However, because aspectual verbs describe an action which is in progress, they have a close relationship with the English progressive. Therefore: if English threaten and promise can be used in the progressive in their second sense, this speaks against an epistemic meaning for the verbs. Since they can, this suggests one more piece of evidence to support the aspectual verb hypothesis.

So far, so good. The problem is, I started coming across other little details which didn't quite fit, and which started making me wonder whether either hypothesis is correct, or whether there may be a third explanation. One key difference from aspectual verbs is that threaten and promise don't describe an action which is already happening, but rather make a statement about future events. This is not insignificant. Statements about the future are always predictions; they describe things which are not yet factual. There is thus a connection between modality (expressions of necessity, ability and probability) and the future tense. A number of current scholar argue, in fact, that English and German do not in fact have a grammaticalized future tense. The future can be expressed using the present ("I'm going to the store"), for example. The modal verbs will/be going to (and the German werden) arguably do not function solely as future markers. Rather, they frequently indicate volition ("I will stop that from happening if it's the last thing I ever do") or epistemicity ("That will be the postman").

So I've started wondering whether the relevant comparison for threaten and promise is to a construction such as the English be going to, and rather than with a verb such as begin. This is NOT exactly a direction I wanted to take this paper, as it threatens to be rather speculative, and I really would prefer to write about something where I'm a little more sure of myself.

In any case, I spent last week in the library reading up on the intricacies of the progressive and future in English, as well as some more confusing excursions into Aktionsarten. I've learned a lot (quite a bit more than I intended)...which I suppose is enough to make every educator jump for joy - that is supposed to be the point of term papers, after all: learning something, not just regurgitating lectures.

I think in this case, however, I would have been satisfied with learning just a little bit less, particularly when I have two other term papers that need my attention.