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Epistemic modality is a sub-type of linguistic modality that deals with a speaker's evaluation/judgment of, degree of confidence in, or belief of the knowledge upon which a proposition is based. In other words, epistemic modality refers to the way speakers communicate their doubts, certainties, and guesses—their "modes of knowing". More technically, epistemic modality may be defined "...as (the linguistic expression of) an evaluation of the chances that a certain hypothetical state of affairs under consideration (or some aspect of it) will occur, is occurring, or has occurred in a possible world which serves as the universe of interpretation for the evaluation process… In other words, epistemic modality concerns an estimation of the likelihood that (some aspect of) a certain state of affairs is/has been/will be true (or false) in the context of the possible world under consideration. This estimation of likelihood is situated on a scale going from certainty that the state of affairs applies, via a neutral or agnostic stance towards its occurrence, to certainty that it does not apply, with intermediary positions on the positive and the negative sides of the scale".[1]

Being a sub-type of linguistic modality, epistemic modality can in its turn be classified into a number of sub-types according to various criteria. An original classification of epistemic modality based on the conception of alienated knowledge is given in the work of V. A. Yatsko.[2]

Realisation in speech[edit]

  • (a) grammatically: through
    • modal verbs (e.g., English: may, might, must; German: sollen: Er soll ein guter Schachspieler sein "He is said to be a good chess player"),
    • particular grammatical moods on verbs, the epistemic moods, or
    • a specific grammatical element, such as an affix (Tuyuca: -hīyi "reasonable to assume") or particle; or

Epistemic modality and evidentiality[edit]

Some linguists consider evidentiality (the indication of the source of the information upon which a proposition is based) to be a type of epistemic modality, and oppose it to judgement modality as epistemic modality based on the speaker's own judgement.[3] An English example follows:

I doubt that it rained yesterday. (judgement epistemic: judgement of information source)
I heard that it rained yesterday. (evidential: identification of information source)

However, other linguists feel that evidentiality is distinct from and not necessarily related to modality. Some languages mark evidentiality separately from epistemic modality.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nuyts, 2001, pp. 21–22.
  2. ^ Yatsko, V.A. Logical-semantic aspects of the concept of alienated knowledge. In: Automatic Documentation and Mathematical Linguistics. 1993, VOL.27, N 4. ALLERTON PRESS INC.
  3. ^ Loos, Eugene E.; Susan Anderson; Dwight H. Day, Jr.; Paul C. Jordan; J. Douglas Wingate. "What is epistemic modality?". Glossary of linguistic terms. SIL International. Retrieved 2009-12-28. 
  4. ^ De Haan, pp. 56–59, and references therein.


  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (2004). Evidentiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926388-4.
  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y.; & Dixon, R. M. W. (Eds.). (2003). Studies in evidentiality. Typological studies in language (Vol. 54). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 90-272-2962-7; ISBN 1-58811-344-2.
  • Blakemore, D. (1994). Evidence and modality. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 1183–1186). Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-035943-4.
  • De Haan, F. (2006). Typological approaches to modality. In W. Frawley (Ed.), The Expression of Modality (pp. 27–69). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Kiefer, Ferenc. (1986). Epistemic possibility and focus. In W. Abraham & S. de Meij (Eds.), Topic, focus, and configurationality. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Kiefer, Ferenc. (1994). Modality. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 2515–2520). Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-035943-4.
  • Nuyts, J. (2001). Epistemic modality, language, and conceptualization: A cognitive-pragmatic perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1979). Modality and the English modals. London: Longman.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1986). Mood and modality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-26516-9, ISBN 0-521-31930-7.
  • Palmer, F. R. (2001). Mood and modality (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80035-8, ISBN 0-521-80479-5.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1994). Mood and modality. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 2535–2540). Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • Saeed, John I. (2003). Sentence semantics 1: Situations: Modality and evidentiality. In J. I Saeed, Semantics (2nd. ed) (Sec. 5.3, pp. 135–143). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22692-3, ISBN 0-631-22693-1.

External links[edit]

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