A requiem for objective epistemic modality, Jakob Maché
CLUL Seminars

The differentiation between subjective and objective originally was introduced by Lyons (1977) in order to account for epistemic modifiers which occur embedded under negation or information seeking question operators. According to his position, (subjective) epistemic operators convey illocutionary force, as they label the modified proposition as assumption by the speaker. As a consequence, they compete for the same position as question operators or directive operators.

As Lyons (1977) observes there are epistemic modifiers that unexpectedly occur within the scope of questions and negations. He claims that they are substantially different in their semantic interpretation from the first type conveying an a mere assertion of a possibility or necessity. Subsequent analyses by Nuyts (2001) added the assumption that subjective epistemic modal operators convey private epistemic assessments by the speaker alone, whereas objective/inter-subjective modal operators convey assessments based on public evidence.

So far no systematic corpus studies have been made that verified these claims for all the lexical items that previously were considered as objective epistemic modal operators. As will be shown here based on a comprehensive corpus study (German Reference Corpus, DeReKo 2*10^9 word form token), (i) there are lexical items which  clearly  have a subjective interpretation and which occur in the non-canonical environments from which they are claimed to be banned, (ii)  epistemic modal verbs which express a statement of a possibility/necessity historically precede subjective ones conflicting with Lyons' and Nuyts' claims according to which objective epistemic modals are derived from subjective ones, (iii) there is no item which is acceptable in all the environments with which objective epistemic modal verbs should be compatible.

Finally, it will be shown that there is a much more elegant analysis which accounts for the existence of subjective epistemic modal verbs in Lyon's 'forbidden' contexts without making reference to the opaque and contradictory concept of objective modality: epistemic modal operators can be embedded under any type of operator that provides a legitimate deictic center as antecedent.