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Quenya Grammar P82: Verbal Modality

Modality is a linguistic concept having to do with the possibility, necessity or permissibility of an action. English expresses modality through a set of special auxiliary verbs called the “modal verbs”, followed by the verbal action:

  • “I can do that” (I am capable of doing that).
  • “I may do that” (I am permitted to do that).
  • “I might do that” (It is possible that I will do that).
  • “I must do that” (I am required to do that).

Quenya likewise uses auxiliary verbs for such purposes, but unlike the English, many of these verbs are not explicitly dedicated to expressing modality, and may serve other purposes. For example, there is no generic verb for “can” in the sense of “be capable of” in Quenya, which instead uses a variety of different expressions:

√POL can, have physical power and ability. “I can jump that”. polin quete means “I can speak (because mouth and tongue are free)”.

√ISI know. istan pole [sic; read istan quete] = “I can speak (because I have learned (a) language)”.

√LER am free to do, sc., am under no restraint (physical or other). lerta[n] quete, “I can speak because I [am] free to do, there being no obstacle of promise, secrecy, duty”. Sometimes = no physical obstacle in which case = approximately √POL (linguistic notes from around 1960; VT41/6; PE17/155, 160, 181).

Thus: polin kare sa “I am physically able to do that”, istan kare sa “I know how to do that”, leryan kare sa “I am free to do that” (nothing prevents me from doing that); all of these can be expressed in English by “I can do that”. The closest Quenya comes to generic “I can” is the impersonal verb ek- “to have a chance of”. This verb cannot have an explicit subject, and the purported subject is given this dative. Thus eke nin kare sa = “I can do it”, more literally “*there is an opportunity for me to do that, it is possible for me to that” (VT49/20). Thus eke is an expression of possibility.

The impersonal verb eke is derived from the root √KE/EKE “it is open; may; have chance, opportunity or permission”, and thus may have originally indicated that the purported subject had the option of performing the action (“it is open to me”) without indicating whether or not they would. This verb is also connected to the participle of uncertainty “may be” (PE22/154, 158), so it could also be a pure expression of possibility. The impersonal verb can be put into the future tense to indicate a remoter, future possibility: ekuva nin kare sa noa = “I may do that tomorrow, I have a chance of doing that” (VT49/20), literally “*there will be an opportunity for me to do that tomorrow”.

It is not clear how obligation (“I must, I need to”) is expressed in Quenya. One possibility is that the verb ᴹQ. mauya- “compel” can be used impersonally to express necessity, based on the gloss of the primitive verb, ᴹ✶mauy- “need (impersonal)” (Ety/MBAW). Its Noldorin [proto-Sindarin] equivalent is impersonal N. bui which is glossed “I must”, lending weight to this theory. If true, then “I must do that” could be mauya nin kare sa, literally “[it] compels for me to do that”, modeled after ore nin karitas “I feel an urge to do it” (VT41/13), lit. “[it] urges for me to do it”.

To summarize, the way Quenya expresses the following English modal verbs seems to be:

  • “I can do that” (I am capable of doing that) = polin care sa (physically able) or istan care sa (know how).
  • “I may do that” (I am permitted to do that) = lertan care sa (have no impediment to doing).
  • “I might do that” (It is possible that I will do that) = eke nin care sa (imminent) or ekuva nin care sa (future).
  • “I must do that” (I am required to do that) = mauya nin care sa (hypothetical syntax).

Note that lá mauya nin care sa would mean “I am not required to do that”. To reverse the sentiment (“I must not do that”), you might say ava nin care sa, literally “[it] forbids for me to do that”. This is likewise hypothetical, since it isn’t clear whether the verb ava- “refuse, forbid” can be used impersonally. It is also possible that a more explicit expression of permission might use an impersonal formation with the verb ᴹQ. lav- “permit, allow”, such as lave nin care sa “it is permitted for me to do that”, but this is also hypothetical.

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