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The aim of this paper is to offer a preliminary description of the changes affecting the category of English modal verbs throughout its history, adopting the perspective of the Theory of Synergetics or Self-Regulation. In the first place, the paper shows how the features of complex systems can be recognised in many linguistic phenomena such as the grammaticalization of English modal verbs. In the second place, the notion of prototypicality is used as a kind of regulating mechanism for the category. Finally, by using the conceptual tools of Synergetics, a preliminary description and 'modelisation' of the interaction of different semantic and syntactic parameters which have triggered the changes from 'deontic' to 'epistemic' is presented.
The starting point of this research is the idea that linguistic theory is a field in which startling new empirical discoveries are very difficult to achieve. Instead, says Ellis (1993), it is time to revise thoroughly familiar phenomena and try to rearrange and reorder them in order to find their place within linguistics. This is precisely the main aim of this paper: to propound a preliminary theoretical model or 'common language', that of Synergetics or the Theory of Self-Regulation, which will enable us to bring together the main work done in the study of modality and modal verbs in English within the Functional-Cognitive theories. (2) In other words, this paper is a first attempt to describe and explain the semantic changes taking place within the category of English modal verbs, both from a synchronic and a diachronic point of view, as a global process in which different pragmatic, semantic and syntactic parameters interact.
As is well known, modality has been seen as one of the paradigmatic examples of linguistic change and grammaticalization processes by theoretical models such as the Generative, Functional, Systemic Functional, Cognitive and Typological, among others. (3) Nevertheless, in spite of the research carried out in this area, many questions remain unanswered such as: How to explain and describe the polysemy inherent in the category of modal verbs? Which factors are responsible for the formation and stabilisation of the category? Have all intervening factors or parameters had--and do they continue to have--the same salience? How do these parameters correlate in the development from deontic to epistemic meanings? Has this been a gradual or a radical change? Can further changes be predicted?
This paper, obviously, will not answer all the above mentioned questions. Rather, what it intends is to show how a synergetic approach can provide new theoretical concepts and tools which can help visualise the development of English modal verbs as a global process. This global approach is developed in the following sections:
(1) A brief Synergetic or Morphodynamic interpretation of grammaticalization and modality--also called Theory of Self-Regulation (4)--is presented, which, in my opinion, can serve as a unifying framework for the different Functional, Cognitive and Typological models proposed in the field.
(2) A summary of the main syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and cognitive parameters proposed by different linguists and theories as responsible for the general changes taking place within the category of English modal verbs during its history.
(3) A preliminary description and representation, using the tools of Morphodynamic theory, of how the different values of some of the above mentioned parameters and their interactions have influenced the most prototypical changes from deontic to epistemic meanings within the category. (5)
1. MORPHODYNAMIC INTERPRETATION OF LANGUAGE, GRAMMATICALIZATION AND MODALITY
Morphodynamic theory is a mathematical-philosophical language, (6) developed in the late 60s by the French mathematician Rene Thorn and simultaneously by Ilya Prigogine and Herman Haken, among others, whose main objective is to study the qualitative behaviour of gradual processes which show sudden discontinuities--catastrophes--in their development, in other words, their morphogenesis (Thom 1977). Morphodynamic theory has been widely applied to sciences ranging from physics to psychology, and recently also to linguistics and semantics in studies such as Wildgen 1982, 1990, 1994; Petitot 1991; Brandt 1992; and Bernardez 1995, 1997a, 1997b, among others. As Wildgen states, it has been found that "the mathematical tools which have been successful in the analysis of nature (in physics, chemistry, biology) ... can be applied in the domain of cognition and language" (1994: 10-11).
Within Morphodynamic or Synergetic theory, language is defined as
a complex phenomenon characterised by its ability to assume divergent forms due to changes in the context in which it is produced or used. The individual acts of language will have a fairly chaotic behaviour, being impossible to predict, whereas in a wider perspective systematicity can be identified; i.e. the unstable--chaotic--linguistic phenomena on the long range 'con-form'--both synchronically and diachronically--stable states. (Bernardez 1995)
This new paradigm has also been qualified as 'realistic' or 'ecological'. Within this model, the approach to language is realistic in the sense that it offers a holistic, integrated theory of language "which assumes that some abstract information is transmitted from ['real'] physical events--in the environment of man--via perceptual processes to cognition--categorisation, memory, language" (Wildgen 1994: 11). (7) And it is ecological in the sense that, "in the same way that the behaviour of a living species will have to adapt itself to the conditions of its …