Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Discourse interpretation : approaches and applications

Modality

The analysis of the pragmatic functions of modal expressions in the opening addresses of the Directors-General strives to show how deontic and epistemic modal meanings may enhance coherence and persuasiveness by constructing a consistent subjective representation of the discourse world in the speeches of the orators. The analysis focuses primarily on modal verbs, since in English the same modal verbs can be used to express both deontic and epistemic meanings; this polysemy is resolved pragmatically in the process of utterance comprehension (Papafragou 2000: 521).

By indicating the necessity or desirability of acts performed by morally responsible agents (Lyons 1977: 823) deontic modality reflects the efforts of the speaker to impose a state of affairs on individuals by restricting possible states of affairs to a single choice (Timberlake 1985). Within political discourse, the morality and legality of this state of affairs is inevitably related to a culture-dependent ideological perspective which correlates with institutional beliefs and norms of conduct and a biased representation of a constructed discourse world in terms of “right” and “wrong”. Since the aim of intergovernmental organizations within the United Nations system is to synchronize the competitive interests of the parties involved, the Directors-General of UNESCO have to persuade all members to support the ideology and policy of the organization in undertaking common action. As this may not necessarily be in everyone’s interest, they have to motivate and impose views which are in agreement with the institutional ideology and to criticize and condemn views which contradict or threaten it. Thus the persuasive force of their rhetoric can be seen as a result of the interplay of claiming solidarity and imposition of power (cf. Hodge and Kress’s (1993) concept of “ideological complex”). In the corpus, one of the key linguistic devices enforcing the institutional position of the speaker defined in terms of moral values, norms of behaviour and actions which should be undertaken to achieve stated goals are the modal auxiliaries must, should and have to, which express exclusively deontic meaning; they occur primarily in the evaluation of the problem and the evaluation of the contribution of the event moves. The modal meanings conveyed vary according to three dimensions: (a) strength of modality, reflecting the power the speaker assumes he has to enforce the institutional ideology and suggested plan of action, (b) subjectivity-objectivity, expressing the existence or absence of a particular position of commitment on the part of the speaker with respect to the propositional content of the utterance in terms of qualifying it as desirable or undesirable (cf. Verstraete 2001: 1517), and (c) explicitness of speaker presence related to the use of self-reference.

An example of the potential of deontic modals to represent the contrast between “right” (peace, collective responsibility for the fate of mankind, human solidarity) and “wrong” (war, threat to everyone, selfish interests) is provided by the extract from M’Bow’s address to the session of the United Nations General Assembly devoted to disarmament (16). The evaluation of the current situation is intended to impose a moral obligation on the addressee to take a course of action in favour of the institutional beliefs and norms of conduct. The variation in the choice of deontic modals (all of which background speaker-presence by the choice of third- person subjects) implies an ambiguity of the power position of the speaker stemming from the advisory status of UNESCO[1] and an avoidance of speaker-commitment when negative connotations are involved. The use of the medium-strength modal should with the force of advice stresses the conflict between the negatively-assessed current state of affairs and the desirable state of affairs and reflects the lack of power of the institution to enforce its views. However, when advocating a course of action which is in conformity with the institutional ideology and which presupposes the active participation of UNESCO, M’Bow uses the strong modal must to imply high commitment and high level of solidarity and support for the suggested course of action. Finally, in a direct appeal to the audience, the choice of have to implies that objective facts impose the conclusion that there is a huge gap between reality and what the institutional ideology would define as a desirable state of affairs, thus imposing the necessity of intervention. This is further reinforced by the explicit marking of the coherence relation of contrast, indicated by the conjunctive nevertheless in sentence initial position.

(16) Henceforth war should cease to be regarded as a means of settling particular disputes between nations; it should be confronted as a common scourge which threatens to turn upon everyone indiscriminately, even those who think they can win itfor a while, and against which it is time for us all to unite. [...]

A peace movement unprecedented in history must now develop everywhere, a movement which insists on collective responsibility for the fate of mankind, a responsibility which must transcend the frontiers of selfish interest and narrow calculations and scale the heights of human solidarity. [...]

Nevertheless, ladies and gentlemen, it has to be acknowledged that the results achieved by the efforts that have so far been made in various quarters throughout the world are less than satisfactory, if one looks at the present situation. (M’Bow, DG/82/16)

Deontic modality can be instrumental in constructing the opposition between “us” and “them”, which is emblematic for the speeches of Mayor. As already evidenced by the analysis of (15), in his address to the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board Mayor constructs a coherent discourse world in which “we” are the active agents protecting “them” (the victims) against “those”, the enemies who are seen as a threat to the whole society. The representation of the ideological tensions in this discourse world (17) is empowered by the use of war metaphor enhanced by triple parallelism to stress the contrast between the negatively-assessed reality (drugs, drunks, cancer, kills like war, addiction, shame) and the desirable state of affairs (personal and social security, health); the aim is to persuade the addressee of the necessity of undertaking action (courageous, firm, innovative measures, radical measures, international measures) to stop wrongdoing and protect victims. The presupposed high degree of consensus and solidarity on the issue of drug addiction is reflected in the use of strong modal meanings, which give the whole speech a coherent frame and enhance speaker credibility by the creating of a strong negotiator “persona” (cf. Bulow-Meller 2005). The high degree of personal involvement on the part of the speaker is indicated by reference to his professional competence to support his institutional authority as Director-General of UNESCO and by the explicit marking of speaker presence by the use of modals with first-person pronouns subjects (I must warn, if we really want to end, we must prosecute, we must care, if we wish to address). The use of we can be interpreted as an instance of the pragmatic strategy of over-inclusion, as its referent shifts between the members of the International Narcotics Control Board and all institutions and individuals sharing the view that negative-effect drugs should be eradicated. However, when referring to measures at international and national level, i.e. presupposing competences which are outside the scope of UNESCO, the speaker chooses implicit subjectivity indicated by the passive and impersonal constructions, since he lacks the power to impose such measures.

(17) Drugs kill: they kill like war. Cars driven by drunks kill: they kill as in war. Lung cancer kills: it kills like war. As a brain biochemist, I must warn particularly against the damage produced by drug addiction. Irreversibility is the supreme criterion for action. It is a matter of the ethics of time.

Courageous, firm, innovative measures must be adopted at international and national level alike if we really want to end this shame of many people, too often young, being trapped by an addiction harmful both for them and for their social entourage. [...]

We must prosecute the drug traffickers just as we must care for the health of the addicted. Both supply and demand must be reduced. This means adopting radical measures for preventing the laundering of money of unknown provenance. The adoption of international measures to this effect is absolutely indispensable if we wish to address the real problems and not merely the symptoms. [...] (Mayor, DG/95/19)

Apart from highlighting the contrast between conflicting value systems, modality can partake in the representation of social and political relations within the in-group society. This is associated with conceptualizing society in terms of a bound space (the container metaphor characteristic of political discourse) seen as a scale on which centrality is associated with the “right” values and norms of behaviour and the periphery with deviation from these norms. Thus the aim of political intervention is to move those who are on the periphery and not yet fully integrated into society closer to its normative centre. In the first sentence of the extract from Matsuura’s address below (18), the strong modal must is used to convey a kind of macro-obligation, which by its generalizing character refers to past, present and future-the necessity of guaranteeing access to education for all-and thus provides a coherent frame for this section of the discourse as the modals used in the subsequent sentences express specific obligations related to this macro-obligation which are imposed on different agents.

(18) In a globalized and inter-connected world, education must be FOR ALL. [...] In this forum, we must also address the question of resources for EFA. This is a recurrent item on our agenda because we still have a long way to go before resource needs are fully met. This is not to deny that real progress has been made in boosting external aid to EFA. The allocation of resources is an expression of priorities, and education, in particular basic education, has been moving up the development agenda as indeed it should. However, even if new aid commitments are met, the expected increase will still leave half of the estimated annual gap of 11 billion US dollars unfulfilled. Consequently, donors will need to double their efforts. At the same time, developing countries themselves must increase and sustain their investment in education. [...]

In conclusion, it is evident that we meet at a time of great change, great challenge and great possibility. We must work together to shape this environment in ways that enable us all to devote our best efforts to the task at hand, opening up new and real opportunities for quality basic education to those who are still without them. As the EFA High-Level Group, we have a

particular responsibility to make that happen. (Matsuura, DG/2006/157)

The strong commitment of the speaker and his power to influence the state of affairs by allocating financial aid from UNESCO funds is indicated by the use of explicit speaker presence (we must) combined with the establishment of a high degree of solidarity with the audience, signalled by together and us all. When addressing the issue of external aid, the modality is changed to the weaker advisory should, while need to used instead of have to after will with future time reference, though indicating a lesser degree of imposition by referring to the force of circumstances and attributing the control over the action to the agent in subject position (donors), may be interpreted as pragmatically strengthened to express obligation (Huddleston and Pullum 2002: 166).

While in epideictic oratory, which is associated with an evaluative treatment of people, actions and events, deontic modality is a crucial means for exhorting behaviour and views that conform to the institutional value system and condemning as morally and/or legally wrong those which oppose them, epistemic modality is connected with conveying prototypically subjective meanings on the certainty/uncertainty scale framing the discourse in the personal opinion of the speaker by showing his/her feelings, beliefs and critical thought (van de Mieroop 2007). The importance of epistemic modality in political discourse stems from its potential to present the speaker’s (lack) of commitment to the truth value of propositions as “not only (and not even primarily) a reflection of knowledge (how certain they are) but also of their ideology and their position in the discourse” (Simon-Vandenbergen 1997: 342). Thus within the discourse world constructed by the speaker, the epistemic scale may represent the speaker’s commitment to the proposition ranging from confident prediction to near impossibility, and from true (assertion), located near to or co-located with the self (the deictic centre), to untrue/false, located with the other(s).

When delivering opening addresses, the Directors-General of UNESCO construct a discourse world in which the views of the speaker and the institution he represents are posited as always true, real, right, and shared by the audience, while the views of those opposing the institutional ideology are presented as false, unreal and wrong. In order to synchronize the competitive interests of member states, the Directors-General have to create an image of themselves and the organization as knowledgeable and reliable political actors confident in their ability to impose the right views and necessary actions, to mitigate internal disagreements and tensions within the organization and to denounce views and prevent actions which contradict or threaten the institutional ideology. This is commonly achieved by the expression of “modal certainty” (Simon-Vandenbergen 1997: 344) which enables speakers to convey a high degree of commitment to the validity of their propositions, thus constructing a coherent subjective representation of their discourse worlds. However, a lesser degree of certainty may be used to juxtapose contrastive views or when dealing with issues on which the member states seem to have diverging opinions.

By expressing modal certainty the Directors-General strive to legitimize the views and actions of UNESCO and to assert their right to impose an ideologically-biased discourse world based on solidarity, i.e. they assume that all member states and the audience support and approve of the institutional ideology, which is presented as right, real and desirable. These epistemic meanings are conveyed by modal auxiliaries, modal adjectives and adverbs and lexical verbs. Thus Matsuura’s address at the launch of the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (19) conveys a high degree of certainty indicated by a sequence of lexical (clearly, sure) and implicit (shall, will) epistemic markers which are combined with deontic modals (must) to imply high commitment and solidarity and self-reference forms to stress the personal involvement of the speaker. While expressing confidence in the ability of the organization and its partners to deal with the challenge at hand, the speaker states intentions concerning the intended course of action and asserts the power of the institution to assure their realization.

(19) Education for Sustainable Development is clearly a tremendous challenge but it is one that we must all welcome and one that we must address together. [...] We shall do our utmost to fulfil this responsibility with all the energy, commitment and expertise it deserves. In this task, I am sure we can count on the broad ESD partnership to work closely with us. In addition, UNESCO will be making its own programmatic contributions to ESD and the Decade, drawing not only upon its Education sector but also upon its other sectors [...] (Matsuura, DG/2005/036)

Modality plays a crucial role in the suggesting of a solution to the problem move, especially when there is lack of agreement between the member states on the proposed course of action. The persuasive force of Mayor’s address to the International Consultative Forum on Education for All (20) stems from the consistent use of epistemic modal markers emphasizing a high level of certainty (adverbials: clearly, no doubt, of course; modal verbs: cannot), which express a coherent subjective point of view, despite his acknowledging of the complexity of the issue and the difficulties involved in reaching an agreement on a joint course of action. The values promoted by UNESCO (tolerance, democratic behaviour, respect for human rights and dignity) are listed to assert the institutional ideology and to prevent undesirable contextualization. The dialogic character of the speech is indicated by the emphatic use of yes and of course in sentence initial thematic position, which typically implies that the audience already knows or will readily accept the information presented by the writer (Biber et al. 1999: 870), and by the subjective clausal marker I hope intensified by the emphatic do. The personal intrusion of the speaker through structures marked by explicit subjectivity shows personal insights, critical thought, and frames the discourse in personal opinion.

(20) Current events demonstrate all too clearly that basic education for the human race must also include those elements that foster tolerance, democratic behaviour, respect for human rights and dignity. Yes, it must include values. These are essentials that cannot be postponed to higher education, nor even to secondary education. No doubt the quality of basic education content is a sensitive area with significant socio-cultural, political and economic overtones. Of course this meeting is not expected to agree on some ideal basic education curriculum or general norms to be applied worldwide. But I do hope that your deliberations will inspire educators, governments and organizations to give more attention to this crucial aspect of Education for All. (Mayor, DG/93/37)

When contemplating issues of controversial character, the speaker may use a combination of modal markers with varying degrees of certainty in contrastive rhetorical structures to assert that the institution he represents is in control of the situation and possesses the power and ability to bring into existence the desired state of affairs. In his address to the Conference on Globalization and Science and Technology (21), Matsuura uses the indicative mood (is) and will, conveying a confident prediction in order to present globalization as a fact; this fact is initially qualified as relatively desirable, irreversible and probably unstoppable, i.e. as a kind of a threat. The explicit marker of contrastive coherence relation however, empowered by the concessive clause (while) introducing the epistemic meaning of may appear inevitable, implies a doubt concerning the problematic character of globalization; it reduces the inevitability of the threat by indicating contrary expectations and interacts with deontic modality markers imposing the obligation to deal with the problem and to bring it under control.

(21) The complex phenomenon of "globalization " is-and for the foreseeable future will continue to be-a major trend, affecting all spheres and levels of society. The early, often passionate, debates about the relative desirability of globalization, have now given way to the growing recognition that this process is not just irreversible, but also probably unstoppable. However, while globalization may now appear inevitable, the direction and form it takes is something we can-and must-work to shape. (Matsuura, DG/2006/113)

The choice of modality reflects the assumed level of solidarity and support for the institutional ideology from the member states and the audience. Thus the ideological conflict represented in the discourse world constructed by M’Bow in his address to the UN General Assembly in New York (22) is conveyed by variation in the degree of epistemic modality used to assert the speaker’s ideological perspective as right and that of his opponents as wrong. At the opening of an extract which presents the view that the hypothetical outbreak of a nuclear conflict would be fatal as right, unquestionable and shared by all discourse participants, this is achieved by the use of an impersonal high certainty marker (it is certain). However, the use of the modal may to express possibility in the subsequent sentences implies the existence of proponents of the opposite view and puts the blame for the hypothetical disaster (those mad enough to start a nuclear war would then have the wisdom to limit it) on “others” who oppose the institutional ideology (referred to by the distal deictic pronoun those), and whose views are presented as false, unreal and wrong.

(22) It is certain that if a nuclear conflagration were to break out nothing could then stop it. It is at the very least misguided and dangerous to think that those mad enough to start a nuclear war would then have the wisdom to limit it [...]. Under these circumstances, war may not only be beyond the control of those who start it; it may be beyond all control and plunge the whole world headlong into an irreversible situation. (M’Bow, DG/82/16)

As the discussion above clearly shows, the interplay of epistemic and deontic modal meanings in addresses implies a correlation between the imposition of compliance with the institutional ideology and the expression of certainty based on authority and knowledge. By constructing a consistent ideological viewpoint indicating a continuous high level of commitment towards the topic under discussion and by imposing behaviour and views which conform to the culture-specific moral norms and value system of the organization, the speaker asserts his existential coherence and enhances the persuasive force of the rhetoric.

  • [1] International organizations of the type of the United Nations, including UNESCOas its specialized agency, are considered to be in the position of an advisoryauthority for their members without having the right to infringe upon theirsovereignty. Thus the commitment of member states to the ideology promoted byUNESCO and their support of its actions is voluntary and cannot be enforced.
 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics