‘Probability’ and ‘Possibility’ in Creative Language Use: on Impossible Possibility in German Texts

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Being culture-dependent, stylistics involves choice of facts and of linguistic means for exposing events cohesively in narratives and for coherent chains of arguments in discourses. Both factual accuracy and logical consistency rely on epistemic warrants especially when verification procedures are not directly available. Ascribing reliable sources to opinions makes the facts and arguments conveyed in narratives and in discourses more or less probable, especially if their guarantors’ reputation is high enough, cf. “Tell me who thinks so, and I’ll tell you if this view is probable”, or even “and I’ll tell you if you are right”. Acceptability and creativity of language use depend on subconscious statistics, with their scales and measures of possibility and probability: infrequent ways of informing are the best candidates for being considered creative. Lexical items ‘(im)possible’, ‘(im)probable’, ‘(in) feasible’, ‘can (not)’, ‘may (not)’, etc., with negative marks and without them, normally serve as truthconditional “hedges” of judgments, as their weak epistemic warrants. Their use, too, may be more or less creative and depends on mental cultures in the framework of which narratives and discourses are produced and interpreted. This paper analyzes double hedge constructions in which a modal verb and an adverbial meaning ‘(im)possibly’ or ‘(im)probably’ are jointly used in sentences, e. g. ‘can possibly’ and ‘might probably’ in English. These constructions look strange or even ungrammatical in Russian, but they are not infrequent in German. Semantics and statistics of these phrases in German are described in this paper, based on a large corpus of fictional and non-fictional German texts. It is shown that statistically, these double hedges are most frequently used for focusing on negative commitments, especially in sentences with ‘unmöglich können’ (“can impossibly”). At the same time, the frequency of ‘kann unwahrscheinlich’ (“can improbably”) is utterly low.

About the authors

Valery Z. Demyankov

Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences

Author for correspondence.
Email: vdemiank@iling-ran.ru
ORCID iD: 0000-0001-9331-3708

Prof. Dr.Sc. (Philology), Professor, Chief Researcher, Head of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Head of the Scientific and Educational Center for Theory and Practice of Communication named after Yu.S. Stepanov

1 bld., 1 Bolshoy Kislovsky lane, Moscow, Russian Federation, 125009


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