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Modality is expressed lexically in Afrikaans by means of modal auxiliaries in combination with a number of constructions serving as their context, as well as by non-verbal means such as modal particles. The focus here is solely on the expression of various types of verb modality in their syntactic contexts. While lexical modality mainly concerns so-called root senses such as ‘prediction’, ‘obligation’, ‘permission’, ‘volition’, ‘capability’, ‘necessity’, ‘possibility’ and ‘evidentiality’, grammatical constructions may contribute to characterising an event or state of affairs as factual or counterfactual, or expressing the speaker’s evaluation of the likelihood of a proposition (i.e. epistemic usage).

On the morphological level, only a subset of Afrikaans modals have a preterite form, for example koncould for kancan. However, the extant modal preterites play a major part in modal expression, even though they do not always match their present tense counterparts semantically or functionally. Furthermore, Afrikaans modals may form 'chains', i.e. more than one may appear in one clause, for example moet kanmust be able to. The meaning of modal verbs is also influenced by the speech acts which they form part of, in other words by pragmatic factors.


Modality is formally expressed in Afrikaans by non-verbal means such as modal particles and expressions, or by verbs such as  modal auxiliaries.  Modality is also expressed by certain construction types, such conditional or hypothetical statements, sometimes in conjunction with modal auxiliaries. Modal nuances not present in utterances merely serving the transfer of information may be  activated in speech acts. Among the non-verbal means of expressing modality, which are mainly lexical in nature, are modal adverbs or particles, such as dalk perhaps which expresses ‘possibility’, mossurely, as we all know and the evidentialgloto believeallegedly. In the present exposition the focus will be on the verbal means, namely the modal auxiliaries (henceforth ‘modal verbs’ or simply ‘modals’) and the contexts and constructions in which they occur [see Root semantics].  From a functional point of view, modality is a cover term for a wide range of semantic, pragmatic and expressive phenomena. It may, for instance, be described as perspectives on actions, states of affairs or entire propositions, such as whether or not they have been realised, whether they are factual, counterfactual or conditional, their probability or likelihood of occurrence, and whether they are based on direct or indirect evidence.

Specifying the truth or likelihood of a proposition, whether directly or indirectly, is at the heart of modality. Possible qualifications of the truth of a proposition by the speaker include:    

  • making explicit that a proposition is factual (realis);
  • making explicit that a proposition is counterfactual (irrealis);
  • indicating the probability that a proposition is true (epistemic usage);
  • indicating that the speaker cannot vouch for the truth of the proposition (evidential).

While the expression of all these types of modality in Afrikaans will receive attention in the present exposition, no attempt will be made to formulate a unified theory of modality; modality therefore merely serves as a cover term for a variety of related phenomena.

An important functional distinction to be made in regard to modal verbs is between basic or root senses qualifying the verbal predicate of a proposition and their epistemic function of qualifying the truth of the entire proposition of which they form part [see Epistemic usage]. Epistemic modals also provide a subjective assessment of the degree of probability that the proposition expressed by the lexical projection of the embedded verb is true. More specifically, epistemic modality is a metafunction in which modal values are employed by a speaker with the sole purpose of evaluating the degree of probability of a proposition being true, and excluding additional modal or pragmatic values or functions. There is a fine line between the use of a modal in its root sense or in epistemic function, particularly in the case of the modal sal/souwill, would;  discovering the speaker’s communicative intention may be crucial in deciding between the two. The difference between root sense and epistemic usage is illustrated by the following pair: 

Example 1

a. Hy moet sy huis verkoop om sy onkostes te dek.
he must.PRS his house sell COMP his expenses to cover
He has to sell his house to defray his expenses.
b. Sy is afwesig en moet seker ongesteld wees.
she be.PRS absent and must.PRS presumably ill be.INF
She is absent and is likely to be ill.

The root modals, which may have deontic senses such as 'obligation' and 'permission', or dynamic senses such as 'intention' and 'capability', are instrumental in modifying the degree of epistemic probability, or enabling the expression of directives, promises, threats, etc. in the pragmatic sphere, or mitigating or adding force to speech acts.

Modal meanings are partly determined by the relationship between the initiator or source of the modality and the sentential subject, i.e. whether the subject may be considered agent, patient, instrument, etc. vis-à-vis the modal force, or just vaguely related to it. The modal source may, for instance, be the person who desires to perform an action ( wilto want to), gives permission ( magmay), or compells another to do something ( moet must, should ).

Afrikaans modals constitute a morphological class of their own; in this they resemble English modals more than their Dutch counterparts. They do not, for instance, have infinitive inflection and are seldom used as (transitive) main verbs, wilto want to being the main exception. Only wil has a past participle, viz. gewil 'PST.PTCP-wil'. The Afrikaans modal auxiliaries and their English equivalents are listed in Table 1 [see Root semantics],  along with their preterite forms, if extant. The most common root meanings, including both deontic and dynamic senses, are provided, as well as their truth value, being either ‘necessity’ or ‘possibility’. This is followed by their epistemic probability, which mainly correlates with their truth value but is also coloured by the more specific root meanings.

A subset of the modal verbs has preterite forms, such as sou, wou, kon, moes and (obsolescent) mog for sal, wil, kan, moet and mag , respectively; these are used in modal functions or simply to indicate past tense, depending on the context and modal in question. While these preterites do not always match the present tense forms from the perspective of tense, it is important to realise that there is an intrinsic connection between tense and modality. What past reference and a modal value such as 'counterfactuality' have in common, is that both suggest distance from the temporal deictic centre. Fleischman (1989) shows how past tense expression is employed in many languages to express ‘distance from present reality’, as past and non-actuality combine in the expression of ‘distal’ meaning.

In subordinate clauses, seemingly redundant modals such as wil, moet, kan and mag may facilitate syntactic connectivity or cohesion with the main clause rather than making a semantic contribution to a proposition; these may usually be omitted without bringing about semantic change. In the following the 'obligation' directed at the addressee by means of moetmust, should echoes the will of the speaker, as expressed by wil to want to:

Example 2

Ek wil hê jy moet dadelik vertrek.
I want.to have.INF you.SG must.PRS immediately leave
I want you to leave immediately.

Most modal auxiliaries may be used to express the speaker’s subjective assessment of the likelihood that a proposition is true or valid [see Epistemic usage].  The degree of certainty ascribed to the proposition in question is determined by the degree of probability associated with the modal used, which is in turn a function of its specific root sense.Thus  in (3a) median probability is expressed as a result of kan’s sense of ‘possibility’, while the high probability expressed in (3b) is related to the binding force of ‘obligation’.

Example 3

a. Hy kan siek wees, want hy is nie vandag hier nie.
he can.PRS ill be.INF because he be.PRS not today here NEG
He may be ill, because he isn’t here today.
b. Hy moet siek wees, want hy is nie vandag hier nie.
he must.PRS ill be.INF because he be.PRS not today here NEG
It is highly likely that he is ill, because he isn’t here today.

In common with Dutch, Afrikaans modals are frequently used in combination [see Modal chains] as in (4a); a Dutch equivalent is provided in (4b). (Note once again that Afrikaans modal verbs do not have infinitive inflection.)

Example 4

a. Sy moet  die berekenings vinniger kan doen.
she must.PRS the calculations quicker can.PRS do
She has to be able to do the calculations more quickly.
b. Zij moet de berekeningen vlugger kunnen doen.
she must.PRS the calculations quicker can.INF do
She has to be able to do the calculations more quickly.

As a general rule, epistemic modals precede non-epistemic ones, as in:

Example 5

Jy kan miskien die brokstukke moet optel.  
you.SG can.PRS perhaps the pieces must.PRS up-pick
You may perhaps have to pick up the pieces.

Preterite agreement, i.e. the duplication of the preterite feature of a previous modal, is typical of Afrikaans. Thus koncould may alternate with kancan without any semantic difference:

Example 6

Sy sou vandag skatryk kon gewees het.
she will.PRT today very-wealthy can.PRT PST.PTCP-be have.AUX.PST
She could have been very wealthy today.

A number of constructions may be pointed out which contribute grammatically to modal expression. A syntactic structure involved in expressing a modal sense without the presence of a modal verb, is inversion. The following exclamations expressing regret about events which have not realised and therefore remain hypothetical or counterfactual, employ inversion in combination with past tense reference and an appropriate modal particle, maaronly.  In (7a) past tense is expressed by the preterite was was, were and in (7b) by a perfect, consisting of a past participle and auxiliary verb.

Example 7

a. Was dit maar Piet wat die perd opgesaal het! 
be.PRT it only Piet who the horse up-PST.PTCP-saddle have.AUX
If only it were Piet who saddled the horse!
b. Het Piet maar die perd opgesaal!
have.AUX.PST Piet only the horse up-PST.PTCP-saddle
If only Piet had saddled the horse!

When root meaning is expressed or epistemic usage is signalled lexically by means of modal verbs, as in (8), the construction is unmarked in regard to the realisation (i.e. factuality or counterfactuality) of an event or state of affairs.

Example 8

Piet moes gister die perd opsaal.
Piet must.PRT yesterday the horse saddle
Piet had to saddle the horse yesterday.

Two constructions are, however, marked in regard to 'realisation' [see Modal constructions]. Predicating the perfect (past participle + auxiliary) to a modal (or modals), as in (9a) [see Construction 1], makes a counterfactual interpretation likely;  including a modal verb (typically a modal preterite) in a perfect construction, as in (9b) [see Construction 2], renders an event factual.

Example 9

a. Piet moes gister die perd opgesaal het.
Piet must.PRT yesterday the horse up-PST.PTCP-saddle have.AUX.PST
Piet had to saddle the horse yesterday (but didn’t do so).
b. Piet het gister die perd moes opsaal
Piet have.AUX.PST yesterday the horse must.PRT saddle
Piet had to saddle the horse yesterday (and did in fact do so).

When used in speech acts which go beyond the mere exchange of information, but have pragmatic implications for speaker or addressee or the relation between them, modal verbs may take on new meanings [see Pragmatics]. For example, by ascribing the ‘possibility’ of an event taking place to the addressee, the speaker  may express ‘permission’:

Example 10

U kan maar die vergadering verdaag.
you.FORMAL can.PRS ADV the meeting adjourn.
You may adjourn the meeting.
  • Fleischman, Suzanne1989Temporal distance: a basic linguistic metaphorStudies in Language131:50
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