Modality: Can -sie ike qualify as a modal suffix, and ma and ka as modal auxiliary verbs in Igbo?

Uweazuoke, Aghaegbuna Haroldson, PhD                                                                                                                                  Department of Linguistics                                                                                                                                                                          Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka                                                                                                                       ha.uwaezuoke@unizik.edu.ng uwaezuokeha@gmail.com 07038590552


Past studies on modality in Igbo have discussed various ways for expressing modality in the language. They have identified the use of forms like fu/pu, nwe ike, kwesi, ike kwe/eleghi anya, -nwu, ga/ya/la/le for expressing modality in Igbo. This paper is confronted with the question on whether the forms sie ike, could serve as a modal suffix, while ma and ka serve as modal auxiliary verbs in Igbo. The forms are found in Ogbunike dialect of the language. They have not been captured anywhere as forms used to express modality in Igbo. Semantically, modality expresses two meanings: deontic and epistemic (Saeed, 2003; Uchechukwu, 2011). Relying on this view, the forms are semantically analysed and the results reveal that each of them expresses deontic and epistemic meanings. It is, therefore, concluded that sie ike, could serve as a modal suffix, while ma and ka serve as modal auxiliary verbs in Igbo.


Every language has a way of expressing modality. Modality refers to the way in which a speaker can express his attitude towards a situation in interpersonal communication (Hartmann and Stock, 1972:140). It also allows speakers to signal stronger and weaker commitment to factuality of statement (Saeed, 2003:135). In the opinion of Igwe (2007), it is used to describe the meanings, which are usually associated with mood. This accounts for why Saeed (2003:138) notes that when modality distinctions are marked by verbs endings which form distinct conjugations, there is a tradition of calling them moods.

In the English language, modality is usually expressed by the use of modal auxiliaries written as simple lexical items, such as: can, could, may, might, must, ought, should, will, would, and so on. The modal auxiliary verbs occupy the first position of a verb phrase and sometimes have several words which may intervene between them and the main verb, e.g. 'when will you meet your doctor?', 'you may not see your doctor today'. Modal auxiliary verb is used by the speaker/writer to indicate his mood or attitude with respect to whether or not the action, event, etc, denoted by the verb can be regarded as obligatory, necessary, permitted, possible, probable, certain or hypothetical (Aremo, 2004:92; Nnamani, 2004).

Although Uchechukwu (2011) considers the study of modality in Igbo as a new development, a lot of contributions have been made by many scholars on modality in Igbo. Winston (1993) cited by Uchechukwu (2011) points out that extensional suffixes play very important role in the expression of modality in Igbo. Uchechukwu examines the grammatical use of these extensional suffixes in the language as presented by different scholars and suggests their reclassification as modal suffixes. Igwe (2007), in his own study of modality in Achi dialect, identifies some other ways for expressing modality in Igbo. In this paper, some other forms found in Ogbunike dialect, such as sie ike, ma and ka, are investigated on the basis of the two meanings presented by Saeed (2003) and re-echoed by Uchechukwu (2011) which modality expresses, that is, deontic and epistemic meanings. A review of past literature is first done in order to show the different forms earlier identified and their use to express deontic and epistemic meanings, followed by discussion of the suspected forms.

The data are tone-marked on the basis of the Green and Igwe's (1963) tone-marking convention of leaving high tone unmarked in Igbo, the low tone marked with grave accent / ` /, and the down step tone marked orthographically with a macron / ̄ /.

Literature review

Saeed (2003) and Uchechukwu (2011) separately assert that modality is used to express deontic and epistemic meanings: While the epistemic meaning qualifies those assertions in which the speaker exhibits some degree of familiarity or knowledge of the situation of things, deontic meaning qualifies those assertions that express obligation, responsibility, permission and ability. Some past studies have discussed modality in Igbo and have identified forms used to express modality in the language. These past studies are reviewed below:

A. fu/pu 'be equal to/be able' (Welmers and William, 1968; Igwe, 2007)

Welmers and William (1968) and Igwe (2007) present the use of fu/pu 'be equal to/be able' to express modality in Igbo. These are two dialect variants that express the same meaning 'go out', as in:

1 a. Obi fụrụ/pụrụ n' ama obodo

Obi go rV stative PAST PREP square town

'Obi went to the village square'

These two words fụ and pụ serve as the main verb 'go' in (1a). They can be as they are or be inflected by suffixing rV. They are also modal verbs and can be used to express modality in Igbo, both deontic and epistemic (Uchechukwu, 2011). In this case, the main verbs are usually in their infinitive form. This is illustrated below:

2 i. Obu fụ(rụ)/pụ(rụ) ịgụ̄ egō

Obi is able (rV stative) to count money

'Obi can count money'

ii. Òbi fụ̀(rụ̀)/pụ̀(rụ̀) ịnọ̀ n' ama òbòdò ùgbuà

Obi be able (rV stative) to be PREP square town/village now

Obi may be at the village square now

'Obi may likely be at the village square right now'

The fụ/pụ in 2(i) expresses the deontic meaning of ability, while in 2(ii), it expresses epistemic meaning of speculative possibility and prediction.

B. nwe ike (from ịnwē ike) 'have strength/might/power; be able; can; may; be capable,

strong, able; may be possible' (Welmers and William, 1968; Williamson, 1972; Igwe,

1987; Igwe, 1999; Nwigwe, 2003; Igwe, 2007)

Welmers and William (1968), Williamson (1972) and Igwe (1999) identify nwe ike as a verb; Emenanjo (1978) regards it as suffix; Nwigwe (2003) sees it as a modal verb, and Igwe (1987; 2007) regard it as a periphrastic form. It is a combination of verb + noun. When the verb -nwe stands alone, it becomes a simple assertion which its truthfulness is difficult to ascertain. In other words, the assertion can be true or false. It also has its full meaning as verb of possession and can be inflected. On the other hand, - ike is an object NP. When the verb -nwe and the noun -ike are combined, it expresses modality. In this case, the verb -nwe can be inflected, while the noun -ike cannot. Uchechukwu (2011) points out that this form expresses both deontic and epistemic meaning. Below are some examples:

3 (i) Chinàza nwè -rè ike ịrụ̄ sọm̀ afụ̀

Chinaza have -rV stative strength to do sum ADJ

'Chinaza can do that sum.'

(ii) ị nwè -rè ike ịgaba ùgbuà

2nd PERS. SING have -rV stative strength to leave now

'you can leave right now'

(iii) Nonso nwè -rè ike ịkpō afịfịa afụ̀

Nonso have -rV stative strength to pack rubbish DET

Nonso has strength to pack that rubbish

'Nonso migbht have packed that rubbish'

(iv) Nne m̄ nwè -rè ike igōta ji taà

Mother POSS. have -rV stative strength to buy yam today

my mother has strength to buy yam today

'my mother might buy yam today.'

The statement in 3(i) expresses deontic meaning of ability, 3(ii) expresses deontic meaning of permission. 3(iii) expresses epistemic meaning of possibility and 3(iv) expresses epistemic meaning of prediction/possibility.

C. -kwesi 'supposed to', 'ought to', 'deserves' (Igwe, 2007)

-kwesi is a modal verb and can be inflected. When it appears in a sentence, the main verb will be in its infinitive form.

4 (i) Èmeka kwèsì -rì ifīcha ụlọ̀ taà

Emeka ought -rV stative to mop house today

'Emeka ought to mop the house today'

(ii) Èmeka kwèsị̀ -rị̀ ịfụ̄ ego à

Emeka be able -rV stative to see money DET

'Emeka could have seen the money'

The statement in 4(i) expresses deontic meaning of necessity and obligation, while that of 4(ii) expresses epistemic meaning of possibility.

D. -ike kwe/eleghi anya 'possibly', 'may/might', perhaps (Igwe, 2007)

The adverb -ike kwe/eleghi anya are used to express the same meaning. When used in a sentence, they come first followed by a coma, then, a simple sentence with reference to past, present or future. While Nwigwe (2003) describes them as periphrastic modals, but Uchechukwu (2011) suggests regarding them peripheral modals since they can only express one modal meaning. Below are examples of the use of the forms:

5 (i) elēghi anya, ọ rụ̀ rụ̀ ọrụ ahụ̀

Possibly, he do -rV PAST work DET

Possibly, he did that job

'he might have done the job'

(ii) ike kwe, ọ nà- àbịa

Perhaps, he AUX PRES. come

Perhaps, he is coming

'he may be coming'

(iii) ike kwe, ọ gà- àrụ yā

Possibly, he AUX FUT. do PRO

Possibly, he will do it

'he may possibly do it'

The statements in 5(i), (ii) and (iii) express epistemic meaning of possibility.

E. -nwu 'ability to do/perform' (Emenanjo, 1978)

Emenanjo (1978:117) identifies -nwu as a suffix. It does not stay on its own, but is affixed to the main verb to convey meaning. According to Uchechukwu (2011), it could be used to express both deontic and epistemic meanings of an assertion. This is illustrated below:

6 (i) Nechè nà- àsa -nwu afele

Neche AUX PROG. wash - PART -able plates

Neche is able to wash plates

'Neche can wash plates'

(ii) Nechè gà - apụ̀ -nwu ùgbuà

Neche AUX FUT. leave -PART -able now

'Neche can leave now'

(iii) Nechè gà - àsụ nwu akwà

Neche AUX wash -PART -able clothes

'Neche can wash clothes'

The statements in 6(i) and (ii) express deontic meaning of ability and permission respectively, while 6(iii) expresses epistemic meaning of possibility.

F. -ga 'shall/will' (Igwe, 2007; Uchechukwu, 2011); y (a)/y(e), la/le (Igwe, 2007)

The morpheme -ga, y(a)/y(e), la/le 'shall/will' are allomorphs of future morpheme in Igbo. They function as markers for both the future and a sense of anticipation. The following examples from Uchechukwu (2011) illustrate the semantic and syntactic applications of -ga:

7 (i) Emeka gà- èri akpụ̄

Emeka AUX -FUT -eat -PART cassava

'Emeka shall eat cassava'

(ii) Èmeka gà- àhụ Uchè taà

Emeka AUX -FUT -see -PART Uche today

'Emeka shall see Uche today.'

The expression of modality that involves the use of the morpheme -ga can be divided into morphotonologically implicit and explicit forms (Uchechukwu, 2011). Uchechukwu (2011) cites examples from different authors to illustrate the implicit modal meanings, as presented below:

Emenanjo (1978:127-128):

8 (i) Nnennà gà- àbịa ebe à

Nnenna AUX come -PART place DET

'Nnenna will come here.'

(ii) Nnennà gà- ịbị̄a

Nnenna AUX to come

'Nnenna is going to come'

Emenanjo (1985:127)

(iii) Ekhè gà- èri yā

Ekhe ANT eat - PART it

'Eke will eat it'

(iv) Ekhè gà irī ya

Eke ANT -to eat it

'Eke must eat it'

Igwe (1973:496):

(v) Ọ gà- ème yā

he AUX do - Part it

'he will probably do it.'

(vi) Ọ gà ịmē ya

he AUX to do it

'he will probably do it'

The verb -ga in the sentences in Emenanjo (1978; 1985) above have an additional modal meaning that Emenanjo (1985) glosses as ANT (anticipation) in sentences 8(iii) and (iv). There is the occurrence of participle in the 8(iii) example in Emenanjo (1985) and the infinitive in the 8(iv) example in Emenanjo (1985). A combination of auxiliary - ga with the participle of the modified verb could yield deontic meaning of compulsion as in 8(iv) and 8(vi). Uchechukwu (2011) points out that Igwe (1973) in his example above merges the future - anticipative and modal meanings. He attributes the mix up of both usages to mainly his decontextualization of his gloss. He concludes that in the appropriate context, and with the right emphatic tone of voice, the verb -ga can be given a deontic meaning of COMPULSION or the epistemic meaning of a deductive PREDICTION in any of these sentences, thus, confirming that the auxiliary -ga can function alone as a modal auxiliary and can explicitly combine with specific morphemes to express modality. This is referred to as the morphotonologically explicit forms of modality involving the use of -ga (Uchechukwu, 2011). The modal suffixes which the auxiliary verb -ga can combine with, according to Uchechukwu (2011), are sị/sịrị, nata, rịrị, lili. He says that the auxiliary verb -ga and the suffixes are bonded morphologically, e.g. gà ... lili, gà... nata

Examples from Uchechukwu (2011:53):

9 (i) Ọ̀nị̀chà: Ọ gà - èli nata n̄li afụ̀

(ii) Ìgbòuzò: Ọ gà - èli lili n̄ni ọ

(iii) Mbìèrì: Ọ gà - èri riri n̄ri ahụ̀

(iv) Obōòwò: Ọ gà irī riri n̄ri ahụ̀

(v) Ishiadụ̄: Ọ gà irī riri n̄ri ahụ̀

he AUX - eat - COMP food DET

'he must eat that food.'

(vi) Ngwà: (a) I n - gà sị̀ irī n̄ri ahụ̀

you PRF - AUX - COMP to eat food DET

'you must eat that food'

(b) Ọ n - gà sị̀ irī n̄ri ahụ̀

s/he PRF - AUX - COMP to eat food DET

's/he must eat that food'

All the examples in (9), in the opinion of Uchechukwu (2011), express deontic meaning of compulsion and obligation. The examples in (10) and (11) express different meanings.

10 (i) Ọ̀nị̀chà: Obì gà - anọ̀ nata n' ụnọ̀

(ii) Ìgbòuzò: Obì gà - anọ̀ lịlị n' ụnọ̀

(iii) Mbìèrì: Obì gà - anọ̀ rịrị n' ụlọ̀

(iv) Obōòwò: Obì gà - anọ̀ rịrị n' ụlọ̀

Obì AUX - be - COMP PREP house

(v) Ishiadụ̄: Obì gà - ịnọ̀ rịrị n' ụlọ̀

Obì AUX - to be - COMP PREP house

'Obi must be at home'

(vi) Ngwà: Obì n - gà - rịrị ịnọ̀ n' ụlọ̀

Obì PRF AUX - COMP to be PREP house

'Obi must be at home'

The examples in (10) express epistemic meaning of possibility.

11 (i) Ọ̀nị̀chà: mmirī gà - ezò nata (n' anyàsị̀)

(ii) Ìgbòuzò: mmirī gà - ezò rịrị (n' abàlị̀)

(iii) Mbìèrì: mmirī gà - ezò rịrị (n' abàlị̀)

(iv) Obōòwò: mmirī gà - ezò rịrị (n' abàlị̀)

water AUX - rain - COMP (PREP night)

(v) Ishiadụ̄: mmirī gà - izò rịrị (n' abàlị̀)

water AUX - to rain COMP (PREP night)

'it must rain (in the night'

Nwigwe (2003:135):

(vi) Ngwà: O n - gà - sị̀ ịbụ̄ uchè

it PRF - AUX - COMP to be Uche

'it must be Uche'

The examples in (11) express epistemic meaning of deductive speculation.

Just as noted by Uchechukwu (2011), it is not all the various form for expressing modality in Igbo that have the deontic and epistemic meanings. Some express only one meaning. For example, eleghi anya/ike kwe express only the epistemic meaning of possibility. However, that they express only one meaning does not preclude them from expressing modality. That is why Nwigwe (2003) and Igwe (2007) describe then as periphrastic modals. But Uchechukwu (2011) argues for their classification rather as peripheral modals. This paper agrees with Uchechukwu (2011) since they are realized at the periphery. It also agrees with him that the prototypical modal structure of the Igbo language to be adopted for full spectrum of deontic and epistemic modal meanings should be the modal verbs and the modal suffixes, but notes that the modal verbs are in two categories: the free modal auxiliary verbs and the hyphenated modal auxiliary verbs. While the hyphenated modal auxiliary verbs on their own make no meaning unless hyphenated to the main verb, e.g. -ga; the free modal auxiliary verbs can stand on their own and still make meaning irrespective of the main verb, e.g. nwe ike.

It is evident from the review that none of the past studies includes sie ikē, ma and kaas forms for expressing modality in Igbo. In the next section, these forms are presented and analyzed.

3. Argument for the use of sie ikē, ma and ka to express modality in Igbo

Few examples are presented below from where it could be concluded whether or not sie ikē, ma and ka can be said to express the two meanings expressed by modality.

3.1 sie ikè 'be capable/be strong/be able'

This is a verbal complex structure comprising free verb root/verbal suffix -sie/siri 'have/be/able/ability to' and the noun ike 'power/strength'. When it functions as a main verb, it can be combined with any adjective. When used to express modality, siri/sie is suffixed to the verb root and has a collocational bond with the noun ike.

12 (i) Mmesoma sì -rì ike

Mmesoma verb - rV suffix power

Mmesoma have (-rV suffix) power

'Mmesoma is strong'

(ii) Mmesoma sì -rì nnukwu ike

Mmesoma verb root ( - rV suffix) Adj. power

Mmesoma have (-rV suffix) much power

'Mmesoma is very strong'

(iii) Mmesoma ji - sie ike, ò merie

Mmesoma hold - able - power, she conquers

'if Mmesoma can be steadfast, she will conquer'

(iv) Mmesoma ga - sie ike, ọ gà -àhu yā

Mmesoma go- PART - quickly, PRO AUX - see possibly it/her/him

'if Mmesoma will be fast, she will possibly see it/her/him.'

In 12 (i) and (ii), siri functions as the main verb. It can combine with an adjective. 12(iii) expresses deontic meaning of ability, while 12(iv) expresses epistemic meaning of possibility.

3.2 - ma 'knows/ability to perform a task'

The vowel -a is not prefixed to the modal aux verb -ma except when -ma is used to express a sense of negation and is being preceded by a noun or plural pronoun. In this case, a homorganic vowel a or e will be prefixed to the main verb in agreement with the rule of vowel harmony in Igbo.

13 Neche mà akwụkwọ

Lit. Neche knows book

'Neche is intelligent'

'ma' plays the grammatical role of a verb in (13) and stands on its own in the sentence. Apart from being a verb, It can be used to express modality. In this regard, it can be inflected.

14. (i) ọ̀ ma- ede yā

s/he NEG write PART it

's/he will not write it'

(ii) ọ mà- ède yā

s/he AUX - write it

Lit. s/he knows how to write it

's/he can write it'

(iii) Neche amā abịa echī

Neche AUX NEG - come PART tomorrow

'Neche will not come tomorrow'

(iv) ọ mà anyà ụgbọàlà

s/he knows drive PART vehicle

s/he knows how to drive a vehicle

's/he can drive a vehicle

(v) ọ mà ịzụ̄ afịa

s/he knows (ability) - to trade/to buy market

s/he is good at trading

's/he can trade'

(vi) ọ̀ ma - enene une à

s/he AUX - NEG - write exam DET

's/he will not take the exam'

14(i) and (iii) express epistemic meaning of prediction. 14(ii), (iv) and (v) express deontic meaning of ability. Finally, 14(vi) expresses deontic meaning of refusal. The effect of tone in differentiating the meanings of expressions that look alike is witnessed in 14(i) and (ii).

-ma can combine with certain modal suffixes to express modality. The suffixes are nata, rịrị and lịlị. In this case, the AUX and the suffix can be written together and they precede the main verb or the AUX is prefixed to the main verb, while the suffix (COMP) follows. Just as Uchechukwu (2011) has noted in the case of -ga, the auxiliary verb -ma and the modal suffixes are 'morphotonologically' bonded.

15 (i) ọ̀ ma-ejenata afị̄a taà

s/he AUX-NEG -go - COMP market today

's/he must not go to market today'

(ii) Chinaza mànàtà anyà ụgbọàlà

Chinaza AUX - COMP drive vehicle

Chinaza definitely knows how to drive a vehicle

'Chinaza should know how to drive a vehicle'

(iii) nnà m màlị̀lị̀ nà ọ pụ̀rụ̀

father my AUX - COMP that s/he leave - rV suffix PAST

'my father must be aware that s/he left'

(iv) Chinaza mà- lị̀lị̀ ife melụnụ̄

Chinaza AUX - COMP something happened

'Chinaza should know what happened'

15(i) expresses deontic meaning of blunt refusal, while 15(ii) and (iii) express deontic meanings of ability and permission respectively. 15(v) expresses epistemic meaning of possibility.

3.3 -ka 'bigger than/should have/would have'

The morpheme -ka functions as marker for comparison and expression of events that should have taken place but did not take place.

16 Neche kà Chinaza

Neche verb+adj Chinaza

'Neche is bigger than Chinaza'

When -ka is used to express modality in Igbo and it is preceded by a subject NP or a plural pronoun, the vowel -a is prefixed to it and a homorganic vowel a or e is also prefixed to the main verb. In this case, -ka is not hyphenated to the main verb, but stands on its own. When -ka is preceded by a singular pronoun, vowel -a is not prefixed to it and it does not stand alone. It is rather hyphenated to the main verb. The modal auxiliary verb -ka can be inflected. When inflected, the main verb it precedes will be in its infinitive form. It can be used to express both deontic and epistemic meanings.

17 (i) Nzùbe àka abịa taà

Nzùbe AUX - come - PART today

'Nzùbe would have come today'

(ii) Nzùbe kà rị̀ ịbị̄a taà

Nzùbe AUX -rV suffix to come today

'Nzùbe would have come today'

(iii) Chijìòkè àka adị ndụ̀

Chijìòkè AUX remain PART life

'Chijìòkè would have been alive'

(iv) Agha kà rị̀ inwē egō

Agha AUX -rV to have money

'Agha would have had money'

(v) Nzùbe kà rị̀ irụ̄cha ya

Nzùbe AUX -rV suffix to finish work it

'Nzùbe would have been able to finish it'

(vi) Àdaobi àka adị na- àga akwụkwọ

Àdaobi AUX remain PART AUX -go PART book

'Àdaobi should have been going to school'

(vii) Àdaobi kà rị̀ ịdị̄ na- àga akwụkwọ

Àdaobi AUX -rV suffix to remain AUX -go PART book

'Àdaobi should have been going to school'

(viii) m kà- edē ya

Ist PERS. SING. AUX - write - PART it

'i would have written it'

17(i, ii & viii) express deontic meaning of certainty. 17(iii & iv) express epistemic meaning of possibility. 17(v) expresses deontic meaning of ability. Finally, 17(vi & vii) express deontic meaning of permission.

Summary and conclusion

This paper set out to answer a question on whether sie ikē, ma and ka could be used to express modality in Igbo. Past works on modality in Igbo were reviewed in order to draw insight on the nature of modality in the language. Also, data were presented showing instances of the application of sie ikē, ma and ka. The data were analysed to bring out the deontic and epistemic meanings in them. The results reveal that the morphemes sie ikē, ma and ka can be used to express modality in Igbo in addition to their primary functions. The paper classifies the forms for expressing modality in Igbo into four: the peripheral, e.g. elēghị ānya/ike kwe; the modal auxiliary verbs, e.g. nwe ike; the hyphenated modal auxiliary verbs, e.g. ga-, ka- and ma-; and the modal suffixes, e.g. -nwu, sie ike.

It can be concluded that this paper has answered the question earlier posed and that in addition to the forms earlier identified for expressing modality in Igbo, sie ikē, ma and ka can be used to express modality in Igbo. Modality in Igbo could be grouped into the core and the peripheral. The core modals express the bipartite meanings - deontic and epistemic and are syntactically housed in the infl, while the peripheral modal express only one of the modal meanings.


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