A Cognitive-Pragmatic Study on Modal Verbs of Possibility in Chinese

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Wang, Pin Yun
Graduate Program:
Applied Linguistics
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
October 08, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Susan G. Strauss, Dissertation Advisor
  • Susan G Strauss, Committee Chair
  • Ning Yu, Committee Member
  • Xiaofei Lu, Committee Member
  • Rena Torres Cacoullos, Outside Member
  • modality
  • discourse function
  • Interactional Linguistics
  • Cognitive Linguistics
  • force dynamics
  • mental space
This dissertation aims to unveil the cognitive-pragmatic properties of two near-synonymous modals of possibility in Chinese, keyi (可以) and neng (能), which are also counterparts of can and may as well as their preterite forms in English, by integrating the methodological rigor of Interactional Linguistics and theoretical insights of Cognitive Linguistics. This study relied on the NCCU Corpus of Spoken Taiwan Mandarin as the main source of data, which are spontaneous, face-to-face conversations among friends and family. This study first examined the usage patterns and discourse functions of keyi and neng in conversation with respect to the three utterance types in which both modals can occur: affirmative declaratives, negative declaratives, and interrogatives. For the overall distributions, keyi features most prominently in affirmative declaratives, while neng, in negative declaratives. While both modals can be preceded by adverbs when used in affirmative declaratives, each modal prefers different co-occurring adverbs. Affirmative declarative utterances modalized by keyi and those by neng both can be used as assertives with the informing function of providing elaboration. The keyi-modalized assertives tend to occur in incremental elaboration sequences, providing further details to support earlier claims or assessments. In contrast, the neng-modalized assertives are more commonly used in retroactive elaboration sequences to reformulate a prior utterance. Affirmative declaratives with the use of keyi can also serve as directives or commissives, which are not found with the instances of neng in the conversational data. The negative declarative utterances modalized by keyi and those by neng both can serve the directive function of issuing prohibition or admonition. But negative declaratives modalized by neng can also be used as assertives with an informing or counter-informing function. The information delivered in such acts tends to involve refuting/challenging assumptions or expectations of some sort. The interrogatives modalized by keyi and those by neng differ in terms of their discourse functions. Additionally, neng-modalized questions are much more likely to conduce, namely, to convey the speaker’s preference for a given answer, than keyi-modalized ones. This study further examined the cognitive underpinnings of the usage patterns and discourse functions of keyi and neng in conversation via the theoretical lenses of force dynamics and mental spaces. The former lens is applied to reveal the force schemata manifested in keyi- and neng-modalized assertives with the functions of informing and counter-informing in the discourse process of argumentation. Specifically, informing assertives modalized by keyi involve the ABSENCE OF BARRIER while those by neng tend to involve the REMOVAL OF BARRIER schema. As for counter-informing assertives, those modalized by keyi involve the REMOVAL OF BARRIER schema, whereas those by neng can involve the BLOCKAGE schema or the COUNTERFORCE schema. From a mental-spaces perspective, while both modal verbs can serve as space builders, the meaning construction of neng is more prone to alternativity, that is, involving both the positive and negative spaces of possibility. It is hoped that the useful synergy of discourse-analytic methods and Cognitive Linguistic frameworks demonstrated by this study can add more empirical rigor and theoretical insight to the current literature on Chinese modality.