All Nordic languages: Expressing uncertainty with modal auxiliaries

J.F. de TROYES

Senior Member
francais-France
Modal verbs are commonly used to express various degrees of certainty from near certainty to uncertainty through possibility or probability. So in English :

1 - She must be in her room
2 - She can't be in her room
3 - She should be in her room
4 - She may be in her room
5 - She could be in her room
6- She might be in her room

What about Scandinavian languages ? Is it possible to make out a similar kind of scale with verbs as måste , , skola, tör ( or others ) ?
It would be also interesting to point out possible discrepancies between Swedish , Danish, Norwegian and Islandic .

Thanks a lot for your explanations.
 
  • NorwegianNYC

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    Norwegian:
    1) Hun være på rommet sitt (as assumption or command)
    2) Hun kan ikke være på rommet sitt (in Norw this indicates that she is not allowed or it is not possible to be in the room)
    3) Hun burde være på rommet sitt (as request or assumption)
    4) Hun kan være på rommet sitt (possibility or permission)
    5) same as 4)
    6) this will not be expressed directly with a modal verb
     

    Merkurius

    Senior Member
    Icelandic
    Íslenska
    1) Hún hlýtur að vera í herberginu sínu.
    2) Hún getur ekki verið í herberginu sínu.
    3) Hún ætti að vera í herberginu sínu.
    4) Hún gæti verið í herberginu sinu.
    5) Hún gæti verið í herberginu sínu.
    6) Hún gæti verið í herberginu sínu.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    Thanks so much for your translations and comments. It's quite clear . Does the verb skall in the present or past tense could also also express incertainty in some contexts ?

    I am also wondering if Danish and Swedish use the similar verbs with the same meaning.
     
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    Tjahzi

    Senior Member
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    It's a bit problematic to just provide a direct translation. Are all of those supposed to be references to different degrees of possibility only, or permission as well? And to you claim them to be different?
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    It's a bit problematic to just provide a direct translation. Are all of those supposed to be references to different degrees of possibility only, or permission as well? And to you claim them to be different?
    I agree with your remarks about how to translate such sentences. Actually their meaning depends on the context and besides each language offers a different range of modal verbs. Linguists agree to say that these verbs can be used in two quite different prospects : either they refer to the the subject or agent of the sentence or they express the degree of certainty given by the speaker to the sentence . She must stay in her room means either that she has to stay in her room without any other choice or she is very probably staying in her room at this time because of her habits, of the hour and so on. My question is referring to the secund value of modals, the degree of possibility or certainty for a fact to be true. Permission is related to the first.
     

    Sepia

    Senior Member
    High German/Danish
    Dansk
    1 - She must be in her room - Hun være på sit værelse
    2 - She can't be in her room - Hun kan ikke være på sit værelse
    3 - She should be in her room - Hun skulle være på sit værelse
    4 - She may be in her room - Hun er måske på sit værelse
    5 - She could be in her room - Hun kan være på sit værelse
    6- She might be in her room - Hun kunne måske være på sit værelse

    Stressing the underlined words makes it clear that we are not talking about physical possibilities or permissions.

    Hun kan ikke være på sit værelse - She cannot stay in her room - after some joker emptied a can of pepper spray there
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Hi JF,
    Danish (some of this is overlapping with what Sepia said above with a few additions):

    1 - She must be in her room
    Scenario A:
    Q. Where is Lisa, I can’t find find her, I’ve looked everywhere in the house.
    A: Oh, she must be in her room then…did you check there? (Hun må være på sit værelse)
    Scenario B:
    Q: Mom, Lisa wants to come down and watch a movie!
    A: No, she must stay, remain, (be) in her room, until it’s cleaned up. (must, has to) Hun skal blive på sit værelse, indtil det er ryddet op. (a command)
    2 - She can't be in her room
    Scenario A:
    Q: Lisa wants to go to her room to play.
    A: No she can´t be in her room today…the paint is still wet. (Hun kan ikke være (it is not possible for her) or Hun ikke være på sit værelse i dag (she is not allowed to be there)
    Scenario B:
    Q: I can´t find Lisa, and I’ve looked almost everywhere.
    A: Well, she can´t be in her room since I just checked there. (Hun kan ikke være på sit værelse)
    3 - She should be in her room: Hun skulle or hun burde være på sit værelse
    4 - She may be in her room
    :
    Q: I can’t find Lisa, where might she be:
    A: She may be in her room, did you check there? Hun kan være på sit værelse would work OK, but a more natural way to say it (IMO) would be through paraphrasing it, det kan være, at hun er på sit værelse.
    5 - She could be in her room: Hun kunne være på sit værelse.
    6- She might be in her room: Hun kunne være på sit værelse.
    Bic.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    Be sure I do appreciate your answers that make me clearer the value of modals in Danish. Good idea too, Bicontinental, to take the context into account , of great importance when using such verbs. Just a question about the sentence Hun ikke være på sit værelse i dag . As far as I know , expresses necessity , not permission ; so can this verb be used with a negation to word a prohibition ?
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Just a question about the sentence Hun ikke være på sit værelse i dag . As far as I know , expresses necessity , not permission ; so can this verb be used with a negation to word a prohibition ?
    Måtte-må is indeed used to express permission:

    If you can ask permission using “the formula” may I, can I, a negative answer will be, you may not, you cannot (i.e. you´re not allowed to or you do not have permission to).


    1. May/can I smoke here? No, this is a no-smoking zone...you cannot smoke here, i.e. you´re not allowed to smoke here. (Må jeg ryge her? Nej, det [her] er et ikke-ryger område…du må ikke ryge her.)

    2. Can I have a popsicle, it´s sooooo hot today. No you can´t, you already had one. (Må jeg få en is, det er så varmt i dag. Nej, det må du ikke, du har allerede fået en.)


    The above examples are in the present tense, but it’s similar in the past tense:
    3 He knew very well he wasn´t allowed to do it, but he did it anyway. (Han vidste godt, at han ikke måtte gøre det, men han gjorde det alligevel.)


    Here is a reference to Den Danske Ordbog, an online dictionary, where you can find more examples of the many uses of måtte http://ordnet.dk/ddo/ordbog?select=måtte,2&query=måtte Point 3 talks about getting permission to do something (“få lov eller have lov til”)


    Best,
    Bic.

    An afterthought re: prohibition: The Ten Commandments (De ti bud in Danish) are written in the "du må ikke" form...e.g. Du må ikke have andre guder end mig, Du må ikke misbruge Herren din guds navn etc.
     
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    Merkurius

    Senior Member
    Icelandic
    The verb ''að hljóta'' is usually used with the meaning ''must, be obligated to, bound to, certain to'' but you can use it to mean ''to acquire, get, gain, receive''.
    ''Þetta hlýtur að bragðast vel'' => ''This must taste good''
    ''Þau hljóta að gera e-ð í þessu'' => ''They must/are obliged to do something about this''
    ''Ég hlaut styrk frá Velferðarráðuneytinu'' => ''I received a grant from the ministry of Welfare''.
    ''Ég hlaut lof fyrir gott starf'' => ''I got credit for a job well done''

    Sincerely,
    -M-
     
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    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    The verb ''að hljóta'' is usually used with the meaning ''must, be obligated to, bound to, certain to'' but you can use it to mean ''to acquire, get, gain, receive''.
    ''Þetta hlýtur að bragðast vel'' => ''This must taste good''
    ''Þau hlauta að gera e-ð í þessu'' => ''They must/are obliged to do something about this''
    ''Ég hlaut styrk frá Velferðarráðuneytinu'' => ''I received a grant from the ministry of Welfare''.
    ''Ég hlaut lof fyrir gott starf'' => ''I got credit for a job well done''

    Sincerely,
    -M-
    Thanks a lot for your explanation. So it seems to me this verb due to its values can be ranged among modal auxiliaries.
     

    frugihoyi

    Senior Member
    English - USA, Portuguese - Brazil
    Hi JF,
    Q: Mom, Lisa wants to come down and watch a movie!
    A: No, she must stay, remain, (be) in her room, until it’s cleaned up. (must, has to) Hun skal blive på sit værelse, indtil det er ryddet op. (a command)
    Would it be wrong to say hun må blive på sit værelse in this case?

    As far as I know , expresses necessity , not permission
    Måtte-må is indeed used to express permission


    So is only used to express permisssion? Would sentences like the following (expressing necessity) be right or wrong?
    Jeg er sulten; jeg må have noget at spise.
    Jeg må bede om en tjenete.
    Vi må stå op tidligt i morgen.
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Would it be wrong to say hun må blive på sit værelse in this case?
    Hi frugi,
    Not only is this topic very broad…it´s also highly context dependent.
    I can’t think of a situation where it would be correct in Danish in this context of a command. ‘She has to stay in her room’ would be translated as “hun skal blive på sit værelse”, (with emphasis on skal)

    So is only used to express permisssion?
    No, …please see above (post #9):
    It is also used to express an assumption or a conclusion (by default)
    “I can´t find the dog, I´ve looked everywhere. Well, then she must be outside (Jeg kan ikke finde hunden, jeg ledt overalt. Nå, så må hun være udenfor.)
    Or.... to express a necessity
    If you forgot your keys you´ll have to run home and get them (hvis du har glemt dine nøgler, (så) må du løbe hjem efter dem.)



    Would sentences like the following (expressing necessity) be right or wrong?
    Jeg er sulten; jeg må have noget at spise. :tick:
    Jeg må bede om en tjeneste.

    (Not quite idiomatic I´m afraid...You could say, ”Jeg må bede dig om at gøre mig en tjeneste”, which sounds both a little formal and bossy or desperate to my ear. A much more natural way to say this is, ”vil du gøre mig en tjeneste?”
    Vi må stå op tidligt i morgen. :tick:
    Bic
     

    frugihoyi

    Senior Member
    English - USA, Portuguese - Brazil
    Hi frugi,
    Not only is this topic very broad…it´s also highly context dependent.
    I can’t think of a situation where it would be correct in Danish in this context of a command. ‘She has to stay in her room’ would be translated as “hun skal blive på sit værelse”, (with emphasis on skal)
    I think it's clear to me now. It seems like må in Danish can be used to express necessity, permission, assumption and conclusion. But NOT command.

    I think that is the difference I've been looking for between Danish and Norwegian usage of må. Any Norwegian speakers here who can confirm that må can be used to express command in Norwegian?
    Does everything else that bicontinental wrote apply to the Norwegian usage of må as well?
     

    frugihoyi

    Senior Member
    English - USA, Portuguese - Brazil
    Are these correct?

    Now you may eat
    Danish: Nu du spise / Nu får du lov at spise / Nu kan du spise (not really gramatically correct but used)
    Norwegian: Nå får du lov å spise / Nå kan du spise (same here, I think "kan" would technically be wrong, but it's used)

    Now you have to eat
    Danish: Nu skal du spise
    Norwegian: Nå du spise

    I almost put an extra Norwegian translation in the last example, using skal. But I don't think that would be right. Or?
     
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    raumar

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    Your Norwegian translations are correct. Regarding "Now you have to eat", both "" and "skal" can be used in Norwegian, but the meaning is a bit different.

    "Nå skal du spise" is a command (eat your food!), if you put the stress on "skal".
    "Nå du spise" rather expresses necessity, as in: You have not eaten in two days. Now you really need to eat!

    However, it is different if you phrase this as a question: "Do I have to eat?" Then the Norwegian translation would be " jeg spise?" "Skal" does not mean "have to" in this case.
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Are these correct?

    Now you may eat
    Danish: Nu du spise / Nu får du lov at spise / Nu kan du spise (not really gramatically correct but used) :tick:
    Norwegian: Nå får du lov å spise / Nå kan du spise (same here, I think "kan" would technically be wrong, but it's used)

    Now you have to eat
    Danish: Nu skal du spise :tick:
    Norwegian: Nå du spise

    I almost put an extra Norwegian translation in the last example, using skal. But I don't think that would be right. Or?
    Your Danish examples are idiomatic...The first example, "nu må du spise", is ambiguous in writing without further context. Må would be stressed in the context of a necessity (as in Raumar´s example, "you haven´t eaten for days, now you really have to eat", nu må du (virkelig) spise noget, (persuasive, urging).

    Må would not (usually) be stressed if the sentence is used to express permission.

    Bic.
     

    sjiraff

    Senior Member
    English
    I don't think anyone has pointed it out, but in Norwegian after "kunne" the verb following goes in to this past tense:

    Det kunne vært verre - it could be worse.
    Jeg kunne trengt litt hjelp - I could use some help.
    Kunne jeg fått låne deg et par minutter? - Could I borrow you a couple of minutes?

    Edit:
    I mean to say this can happen, but isn't always the case after "kunne". I think this just reenforces the uncertainty that it's "could" and not "can". I'm sure a native will be able to say if this is more correct or not.
     

    sjiraff

    Senior Member
    English
    You put it better than I could myšlenka, and the same thing also happens not just with "kunne" - but with ville and hadde, where the verb after becomes past tense rather than infinitive to show that it's "possible" rather than certain. (jeg ville skrike - I wanted to scream, jeg ville skreket - I would scream (if something happened))
     

    myšlenka

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    You put it better than I could myšlenka, and the same thing also happens not just with "kunne" - but with ville and hadde, where the verb after becomes past tense rather than infinitive to show that it's "possible" rather than certain. (jeg ville skrike - I wanted to scream, jeg ville skreket - I would scream (if something happened))
    I deleted my post because I got a little confused as to the actual meaning of the modals in this particular context.
     

    myšlenka

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    I don't think anyone has pointed it out, but in Norwegian after "kunne" the verb following goes in to this past tense:

    Det kunne vært verre - it could be worse.
    Jeg kunne trengt litt hjelp - I could use some help.
    Kunne jeg fått låne deg et par minutter? - Could I borrow you a couple of minutes?

    Edit:
    I mean to say this can happen, but isn't always the case after "kunne". I think this just reenforces the uncertainty that it's "could" and not "can". I'm sure a native will be able to say if this is more correct or not.
    So, I think I have made up my mind now. A modal verb in the past tense combined with a main verb past participle gives a counterfactual reading. That's clear! However, various combinations of modals with different tenses/aspects will disambiguate the meaning of the modal in question. Norwegian å kunne can have three different meanings:
    1) permission (deontic reading)
    2) ability (dispositional reading)
    3) possibility (epistemic reading)

    In the first two examples you listed, it seems to me that the epistemic reading (possibility) is the only possible one. It is not reinforced, but rather forced. In your third example, you are asking for permission but this reading arises because of the use of , not because of kunne.

    I think this is right but I am still not sure (the counterfactuality messed up my head) :)
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Hi all,

    I’m still a little unsure about the way the counterfactual construction works in Norwegian… if we look at the three examples posted by sjiraff,


    Det kunne vært verre - it could be worse.
    Jeg kunne trengt litt hjelp - I could use some help.
    Kunne jeg fått låne deg et par minutter? - Could I borrow you a couple of minutes?
    The counterfactual conditional… in the context of a past time reference… is, as you know, a construction using the perfect conditional in English, i.e. it could have been worse, [but it wasn’t], I could have used some help [but I didn’t get it]. These are past situations that were theoretically possible but didn’t happen.


    The English translations provided above use the present conditional, it could be, I could use, indicating a present or future scenario that might (or might not) happen. Does this tense correspond to the Norwegian [past tense + past participle], i.e. kunne vært, kunne trengt? What about [past tense + infinitive] i.e. jeg kunne trenge litt hjelp?


    A final question…Is it grammatically wrong to use ‘ha’ in a past conditional construction i.e. “Det kunne [ha] vært verre?”


    Thanks,:)

    Bic.
     

    frugihoyi

    Senior Member
    English - USA, Portuguese - Brazil
    Hi all,

    I’m still a little unsure about the way the counterfactual construction works in Norwegian… if we look at the three examples posted by sjiraff,




    The counterfactual conditional… in the context of a past time reference… is, as you know, a construction using the perfect conditional in English, i.e. it could have been worse, [but it wasn’t], I could have used some help [but I didn’t get it]. These are past situations that were theoretically possible but didn’t happen.


    The English translations provided above use the present conditional, it could be, I could use, indicating a present or future scenario that might (or might not) happen. Does this tense correspond to the Norwegian [past tense + past participle], i.e. kunne vært, kunne trengt? What about [past tense + infinitive] i.e. jeg kunne trenge litt hjelp?


    A final question…Is it grammatically wrong to use ‘ha’ in a past conditional construction i.e. “Det kunne [ha] vært verre?”


    Thanks,:)

    Bic.
    I'm not a native Norwegian, but I believe you are right about this counterfactual thing.

    I do also believe that it is fine to use 'ha' in past conditional constructions. I think it's a matter of preference.
    My question is: in Danish, can you leave out 'have' in such a construction?
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    My question is: in Danish, can you leave out 'have' in such a construction?
    No, in Danish you cannot leave out “have” in this particular example.
    Det kunne været værre :cross:

    Det kunne have været værre :tick:

    Jeg kunne trængt til lidt hjælp:cross:

    Jeg kunne have trængt til lidt hjælp.:tick:
    Verbs like kunne, burde, skulle, måtte need “have” before the past participle (the list may be incomplete, but these are the verbs I can think of at the moment).
    Bic.
     

    myšlenka

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    The English translations provided above use the present conditional, it could be, I could use, indicating a present or future scenario that might (or might not) happen. Does this tense correspond to the Norwegian [past tense + past participle], i.e. kunne vært, kunne trengt? What about [past tense + infinitive] i.e. jeg kunne trenge litt hjelp?


    A final question…Is it grammatically wrong to use ‘ha’ in a past conditional construction i.e. “Det kunne [ha] vært verre?”


    Thanks,:)

    Bic.
    I think you'll find an answer to your questions here.
     
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