A first observation of the quantitative development of all modal verbs over time shows that there is a shifted correlation between this and the development of infection numbers (Fig. 4). The relative frequency of the word type ›modal verb‹ was measured. Like the absolute number of articles, the relative frequency of modal verbs within the articles increases abruptly: In the week from 24.02. to 31.03. we measure a 17% increase in the frequency of modal verbs. This is remarkable in so far as modal verbs are frequently used in language anyway and the increase cannot simply be explained by thematic context or genre. In fact, this is the week in which Shrove Monday and Tuesday fall and the week in which two first major outbreaks were reported in the Heinsberg and Göppingen districts, both related to Shrove celebrations. This connection indicates that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pathogen in this week’s reporting is finally changing from an international media event to a national crisis with implications for action. Like the absolute number of articles, the proportion of modal verbs remains at a high level and does not decrease as the number of cases drops.
Figure 5 shows the quantitative relationship of the modal verbs to each other and to the frequency of the corresponding verbs in the reference corpus. The left y‑axis shows the relative frequency of the individual modal verbs, the right y‑axis the respective percentage of negated modal verb constructions. First of all, it shows that the proportion of the respective modals in the total system of modal verbs does not differ significantly compared to the reference corpus – with two exceptions: Müssen is proportionally more frequent and wollen is significantly less frequent. If we compare the relative frequencies of the modal verbs in relation to the corpus and reference corpus, we notice that the difference is greatest for können. In a keyword analysis (Gabrielatos 2018) that ranks according to the Log-likelihood score, können comes at rank 20 with Log-likelihood ratio (LLR) = 1564.91, which is quite surprising in a thematic corpus. It is thus in the list before words like hospital, relaxation or infect.Footnote 10
Müssen is also highly significantly more frequent than in the reference corpus (rank 111, LLR 650.72). This also applies to dürfen (rank 127, LLR 598.73), which, however, occurs much less frequently overall. In the case of the frequent modal sollen the distance between the frequency in corpus and reference corpus is lower, but still highly significant (rank 1634, LLR 56.77). Wollen and – much rarer in evidence – mögen occur significantly less often in the corpus than in the reference corpus. The proportions of negated modal verb constructions do not differ significantly from those in the reference corpus. The construction nicht können, which is prominently used in Angela Merkel’s speech, only has a share of approx. 19% of the können occurrences and is thus no more frequent than in the reference corpus. This may be surprising, since the COVID-19 discourse necessarily refers to situational restrictions, which are typically indicated by nicht können.
Function: Conversational backgrounds in the sample
The 2,287 modal verb constructions in the sample were now manually categorised according to the types of conversational backgrounds introduced above (Fig. 6). 33% percent of the occurrences indicate the normative conversational background, 18% the teleological and a total of 21% the circumstantial speech background, of which slightly more the enabling and slightly less the restrictive circumstantial background. The epistemic conversational background is used in 11% of the cases, while the volitive background is negligible at 5%. Although the rhetorical background took on an important function in Angela Merkel’s speech, it does not carry any quantitative weight in the press corpus here with 3%.
Two aspects of this distribution may be surprising: Firstly, the addressing of restrictions on action with modal verb constructions is rarer than might have been expected in reporting on a pandemic that has to be fought through restrictions on freedom of movement and action. And secondly, the share of epistemic speech backgrounds is also relatively small, considering the high degree of uncertainty with which the discourse was necessarily associated. However, in addition to epistemic speech backgrounds, we find an almost equal share of non-epistemic potential backgrounds. This means that possibilities and risks are rendered about equally often with and without a component of subjectification. In such an uncertain situation as the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still remarkable that target formulations introduced with the teleological background account for just under one fifth of the evidence in the sample.
This section provides a detailed analysis of those conversational backgrounds that have proven to be quantitatively discourse-relevant: the normative, the circumstantial, the teleological as well as the epistemic and potential. In doing so, I will show which modal verbs are used to index the conversational backgrounds in discourse, work out patterns of indexing and give discourse-functional descriptions on the basis of textual evidence.
The normative background is indexed in the corpus by four modal verbs (Fig. 7). The most frequent is müssen (45%), sollen is used in 25% of the cases, dürfen in 19% and können in 11%. Negated constructions are included. The variation indicates the range of references to norms, values and socially effective expectations. The various modal verbs each bring central aspects of meaning into the norm reference, which are specified in use firstly by the semantics of the embedded proposition and secondly by contextualisation. In the case of müssen, this is ›compulsion‹, in the case of sollen ›demand‹, in the case of dürfen ›permission‹ and in the case of können ›possibility‹. While müssen, sollen and dürfen have their domain in the normative background, in the case of können the communicative potential of the circumstantial background is introduced. Normative thematisations with (nicht) können are thus conceptualised with an overtone of no alternative.
We find müssen essentially with two functions in the data: Firstly, as a reference to state or official rules and regulations (a) and secondly, in demands of individuals and groups, in which the speakers – often implicitly – back up the urgency of their demand by referring normatively to the common ground (b).
Kommen Auflagen, dass man nachweisen muss, nicht infiziert zu sein, einen Impfschutz oder eine anderweitige Immunität zu haben? SPIEGEL online, 11.05.2020 [Will requirements be introduced that one must prove not to be infected, to have vaccination protection or other immunity?]
Mit der Digitalisierung muss es das Ziel sein, dass Praxen und Kliniken künftig nicht nur in der Krankenversorgung, sondern auch in der Forschung viel enger als bisher zusammenarbeiten. Bild plus, 21.04.2020 [With digitalisation, the goal must be for practices and clinics to work together much more closely in future than they have in the past, not only in patient care but also in research.]
Sollen occurs in the same contexts as müssen, except that it formulates official regulations as more or less urgent recommendations (c). In modal verb constructions that indicate demands, sollen also weakens the claim to validity of the asserted proposition (d).
Man solle öffentliche Verkehrsmittel meiden, empfahl die Bundeskanzlerin, also bestellte ich mir ein Taxi. taz, 16.03.2020 [One should avoid public transport, the Chancellor recommended, so I ordered a taxi.]
Nachdem auch Fitnessstudios und Spielhallen wieder öffnen dürfen, sollten unsere Kinder langsam mal dran sein. Die Welt, 22.05.2020 [Now that gyms and gambling halls are allowed to open again, it should be our children’s turn.]
In the use of the modal verb dürfen we also find the dichotomy between state and official regulations (e) and presupposed common ground (f) as a normative background. Both the positive normative reference (permission) and the negative one (prohibition or negative demand) mark an absolute claim to validity of the proposition.
Den Spielplatz darf nur betreten, wer keine Symptome hat, die auf Covid-19 hindeuten. Bild plus, 03.05.2020 [Only those who do not have symptoms that indicate Covid-19 are allowed to enter the playground.]
Was nicht passieren darf: Dass die EU-Chefs wieder mal einen lauwarmen Kompromiss präsentieren. SPIEGEL online, 23.04.2020 [What must not happen is that the EU leaders once again present a lukewarm compromise.]
We find können in comparable constructions, with the difference that the norm is conceptualised as an enabling or (in negated constructions) restricting circumstance of the modalised action (g). This has the effect that the agents who set the norms move into the background or disappear entirely. The norm is presented as inevitability, which on the one hand implies an absolute claim to validity and on the other suspends the power relations that always resonate in norm references.
Eine kleine Trauergemeinde mit maximal zehn Personen kann sich während der Bestattung direkt am Grab oder der Urnenwand zusammenfinden. Stuttgarter Zeitung, 27.03.2020 [A small group of no more than ten mourners can gather directly at the grave or urn wall during the funeral.]
An evaluation of the formulations with which the normative conversational background is introduced into discourse has revealed the following patternsFootnote 11. In cases where patterns feature slots with certain semantic properties, I note them in the conceptual framework of frame semantics. I use the terminology developed in Frame-Net for this purpose.Footnote 12 Formulations that occur 3 times or more often in the sample are included here:Footnote 13
MUSS / SOLL
Abstand / s. an Regel halten [keep distance / abide by rules]
auf NP[Content] verzichten [renounce NP[Content]]
es (eigentlich) wissen [actually know sth.]
NP[Message:allowance] beantragen [apply for NP[Message:allowance]]
NP[Topic] ernst / nicht auf die leichte Schulter nehmen [take NP[Topic] seriously / not take NP[Topic] lightly]
Handschuhe / Masken tragen [wear gloves or masks]
zuhause arbeiten [work at home]
sich / andere schützen [protect oneself and others]
Regeln einhalten [respect rules]
Steuern / Strafe zahlen [pay taxes / penalty]
zu Hause / auf dem Zimmer / im Krankenhaus bleiben [stay at home / in the room / in the hospital]
DARF NICHT/KANN NICHT
NP[Source] verlassen [leave NP[Source]]
DARF / KANN
NP[Message] beantragen [apply for NP[Message]]
NP[Decision] selbst entscheiden [decide NP[Decision] for oneself]
im Büro / zuhause arbeiten [work in the office at home]
Unterstützung / Geld / Hilfen bekommen [get support / money / help]
zu Besuch bei NP[Goal] kommen [come to visit NP[Goal]]
in den Genuss von NP kommen [benefit from NP[Benefactor]]
wieder Fußball spielen [play football again]
COMPANY / GASTRONOMY
ab UHRZEIT / bis DATUM schließen [close from TIME / until DATE]
Steuern / Strafe zahlen [pay taxes / penalty]
(wieder) öffnen [(re)open]
(Veranstaltung) stattfinden lassen [let an event take place]
ADMINISTRATION / GOVERNMENT
MUSS / SOLL
alles tun, um VPINF [do everything to VPINF]
NP[Goods] bezahlen [pay for NP[Goods]]
NP[Decision] entscheiden [decide NP[Decision]]
NP[Self_mover] in Gang / die richtigen Schwerpunkte / auf flexible Lösungen setzen [get NP[Self_mover] going / the right priorities / rely on flexible solutions]
Unterstützung / Geld / Hilfen geben/gewähren/leisten [give/grant/provide support / money / assistance]
It is noticeable that the negated norm-related constructions appear very sparsely in the list above. This is because they show a high variation in the sample and specific constructions occur less than 3 times. Overall, the negated modal verb constructions with a normative background represent about 15% of the cases in the sample. Examples are: ›s. must not take sth. lightly‹, ›s. must not take risks‹, ›s. must not meet s. with s.‹, ›must not praise the day before the evening‹, ›s. must not go to the playground‹.
The circumstantial-restrictive background is introduced in roughly equal parts by the modal verb constructions müssen (55%) and nicht können (45%) (Fig. 8). With müssen, the set of all potential possibilities for action is narrowed down to one that is mandatory or required by the circumstances. With nicht können, a presupposed positive possibility of action is excluded. As shown above, müssen has its domain in the normative background. In the evidence categorised here, the müssen constructions are used to thematise an unavoidable constraint caused by the situation. Many formulations are found in which the pressure to act with an absolute claim to validity is introduced by reference to a conversational background that exhibits a certain ambivalence between circumstance and norm. We have already seen the rhetorical function and the activation potential of such constructions in Angela Merkel’s speech.
The range of conversational backgrounds indexed by must can be seen in the evidence cited here. In the first case, the modal verb addresses the medical inevitability triggered by the virus (a). The second instance, on the other hand, represents a prompting action, in which an external necessity is referred to, which – actually or presumably – arises from the pandemic situation (b). What is exemplary about this citation is that the demand (Wir müssen …) and its backing (um zügig …) are connected on the basis of a topos with normative effect (cf. Wengeler 2015). It may be called the innovation topos: ›Whoever wants to be successful in solving a problem needs innovation and creativity.‹ Thus, in citation (b), the ›pure‹ extrasubjective circumstance as the context of the modalised action (as in a) becomes a norm-penetrated circumstance emulated under the conditions of society. Like almost all modal verbs with a normative reading, the construction has a teleological subsidiary meaning, because the call formulated here is aimed at the future. However, this is only triggered by the normative reference.
Er sagte, dass er sich verabschieden wolle, weil er für 7 bis 12 Tage ins künstliche Koma muss. Bild plus, 26.04.2020 [He said that he wanted to say goodbye because he had to go into an artificial coma for 7 to 12 days.]
»Wir müssen unsere Innovation und Kreativität im Land schnell zusammenbringen, um zügig die beste Balance zwischen optimalem Gesundheitsschutz und rationalen datenbasierten Entscheidungsgrundlagen für das Anfahren von Wirtschaft, Bildung, Tourismus und Sport zu erlangen«, sagt Rolfs. FAZ 12.05.2020 [»We need to quickly bring together our innovation and creativity in the country to quickly achieve the best balance between optimal health protection and rational data-based decision-making to drive the economy, education, tourism and sport«, says Rolfs.]
We find a similar spectrum of contextualisations in evidence with nicht können. Citation (c) represents a restriction on action due to external circumstances, while the negated modal verb construction in document (d) refers to an intrasubjective-circumstantial restriction with which an argument is made for the demand to accept the situation. The citation is taken from an interview with a psychologist. It can be seen that the modal verb construction occurs in the course of illustrating the concept of ›uncertainty‹ introduced earlier. The restriction introduced descriptively by the psychologist thus refers indirectly to the epistemic conversational speech background, which is introduced here on the second level.
Dafür lieh er sich Geld, das er nun nicht zurückzahlen kann. FAZ, 23.05.2020 [For this he borrowed money that he now cannot pay back.]
Die Unsicherheit ist ein ständiger Begleiter in der Krise. Niemand kann abschätzen, was sich in diesen Wochen und Monaten verändert. Menschen müssen ihren Alltag in einer Geschwindigkeit neu strukturieren, die ihnen fremd ist. Die bekannte Ordnung erodiert. »Wir müssen diesen Zustand jetzt akzeptieren«, sagt Scheuermann. Der Spiegel, 11.04.2020 [Uncertainty is a constant companion in the crisis. No one can estimate what will change in these weeks and months. People have to restructure their everyday lives at a speed that is alien to them. The familiar order is eroding. »We have to accept this state of affairs now«, says Scheuermann.]
From the patterns of modal verb constructions with indication of circumstantial restrictive backgrounds, we see that restrictions are highly related to the life of the individual citizen. We find verbs of inner feeling in the patterns (›experience‹, ›learn‹, ›come to terms with sth.‹), as well as those of outer activity (›work‹, ›help‹, ›do sth.‹). We see through these parallel pattern formations that intrasubjective and extrasubjective restrictions are brought close together in the discourse, so that the external situation and psychological constraints become blurred. Interestingly, we do not find any patterns here that indicate restrictions for states, institutions and actors in politics and administration.
eine Behandlung / Infusion bekommen [get a treatment / infusion]
für NP[Purpose] / gegen NP[Side 2] kämpfen [fight for NP[Purpose] / against NP[Side 2]]
etw. erfahren [find out about sth.]
NP[Stimulus] erleben [experience NP[Stimulus]]
mit NP[Theme:situation] leben live with NP[Theme:situation]
NP[Skill] lernen [learn NP[Skill]]
sich mit NP[Theme:situation] abfinden [come to terms with NP[Theme:situation]]
es sich leisten, zu VPINF[Activity] [afford to VPINF[Activity]]
NP[Beneficiary] helfen [assist NP[Beneficiary]]
NP[Counteragent:relatives] sehen [see NP[Counteragent:relatives]]
NP[Activity:job] ausüben [pursue NP[Activity:job]]
The circumstantial enabling background is almost exclusively indicated by the modal können (98%). The negating formulation by nicht müssen plays no role with only 2% of the evidence (Fig. 9).
The positive circumstantial backgrounds in the press discourse on COVID-19 can be located on three levels: Firstly, in factual asserted propositions about possible actions (a), which can be found according to the course of the epidemic in May 2020. Secondly, in non-factual embedded propositions that are subordinated to predicates of hoping, waiting and demanding (b). And thirdly, the corresponding modal constructions are found in embedded non-factual propositions, with matrix constructions referring on planning games and hypothetical models in crisis teams (c).
Damit können wir nun flächendeckend in die Sportvereine und aktive Bewegung zurückkehren. FAZ, 07.05.2020 [This means that we can now now return to sports clubs and active movement across the board.]
Lola wartet darauf, dass der Spielplatz aufmacht und sie schaukeln kann. taz, 27.04.2020 [Lola is waiting for the playground to open so she can swing.]
Einmütig verfassten sie Papiere, wie der Staat mit hohen Krediten einen Kollaps der Konjunktur verhindern kann. Der Spiegel, 30. Mai 2020 [They unanimously wrote papers on how the state can prevent a collapse of the economy with large loans.]
According to this differentiated discourse semantics, the contexts of action to which positively enabling modal verb constructions are attributed are more diverse than in the case of restrictive-circumstantial constructions. The subjects of the corresponding modalised propositions can be citizens, but also events. A pattern is found in the sample related to government and administration.
NP[Stimulus] (deutlich) sehen [see NP[Stimulus] (clearly)]
(noch) (gut) schlafen [(still) sleep (well)]
sich erinnern [remember]
(wieder) arbeiten [work (again)]
(eine bestimmte Zeit noch) durchhalten [(still) hold out (for a certain time)]
sich / einen Anspruch durchsetzen [to assert oneself / a claim]
MEASURE / EVENT
NP[Beneficiary] vor Ansteckung / COVID-19 schützen [protect NP[Beneficiary] from infection / COVID-19].
stattfinden [take place]
GOVERNMENT / ADMINISTRATION
den Zeitplan (unter Bedingung X) einhalten [keep to the schedule (under condition X)]
It is interesting to look at the quantitative distribution of restrictive and enabling circumstantial contexts by calendar week (Fig. 10). The graph should be viewed with caution because it shows data extrapolated from the sample in relation to the population and the sample is unreliable in the first weeks due to the small data basis. From March onwards, however, the data sample is representative, as shown above. The tendency of constructions with enabling backgrounds to become proportionally more frequent intensifies towards the second half of May, when enabling modal constructions are evidenced about 25% more often than restrictive modal constructions. This seems to be due to the pandemic development and the opening perspective after the first lockdown in May.
As we have seen above, the teleological background plays a considerable role in the discourse with 18% of the evidence from the sample. The introduction of objectives through modal verb constructions is performed prototypically through the non-psychological use of wollen (cf. a). This is true (see Fig. 11) in 42% of the cases. 45% are formed with the verb sollen (b). However, there are also 13% of cases with können, in which the teleological meaning is given a circumstantial-possible secondary meaning (c).
The majority of the evidenced teleological modal verb constructions (67% – 277 from 413) fall in the months of April and May, that is the phase of lockdown and relaxations. It can be noted that formulations of goals in April tend to be small-scale and oriented towards the next steps to take (as in a), while in May after the first wave of the pandemic perspectives are mostly directed towards medium-term (b) and long-term (c and d) goals. The citations (a) and (b) show that the choice between wollen and sollen as teleological markers is related to the marking of the agent of the goal formulation: While the agent is coded as a grammatical subject in wollen constructions (a), it is typically elided in sollen constructions (b). In sollen constructions, predicates with passive semantics or passive constructions are embedded (b), while wollen constructions serve to embed action predicates (a).
Am Donnerstag wollen die Mitglieder der Opec+ in einer Telefonkonferenz mögliche Schritte diskutieren. Die Welt, 07.04.2020 [On Thursday, the members of Opec+ want to discuss possible steps in a conference call.]
Selbstständige und Kleinunternehmer sollen direkte Zuschüsse von bis zu 15 000 Euro bekommen. Stuttgarter Zeitung, 24.03.2020 [The self-employed and small business owners are to receive direct grants of up to 15,000 euros.]
Teleological können formulations always have a potential or circumstantial connotation. In document (c) the formulation of goals is formulated as a possibility from the point of view of the agent of the embedded proposition (here: ›politics‹). In document (d), the target formulation is implemented with an intrasubjective, circumstantial connotation.
Welche Rolle kann die Politik in Zukunft spielen? Bild plus, 14.05.2020 [What role can politics play in the future?]
Wir können eine ökologische Agrarwende angehen [..]. Die Zeit, 14.05.2020 [We can tackle an ecological agricultural turnaround.]
Smirnova and Diewald (2013) discuss origo shifts in reported discourse with present subjunctive and sollen constructions. They call constructions with shifted origo »quotative« and constructions without origo shift »reportive« (Smirnova and Diewald 2013, p. 4). They point out that discourse reporting with sollen is reportive, i.e. comes without origo shift. In our case, teleological background introduced with können are quotative implying an origo shift towards the agent of the objective, while wollen and sollen constructions are reportive, i.e. the constructed situation is perspectivated from the reporting author’s point of view.
Agents in the formulation of goals are citizens, companies, institutions and states. In the passive sollen constructions, the beneficiaries or objects are linguistically constructed as the subjects of the goal formulation.
NP[Activity] machen [do NP[Activity]]
NP[Containing object:bar/institution/shop/restaurant] (wieder) öffnen [(re)open NP[Containing object:bar/institution/shop/restaurant]]
mit NP[Counteragent:person in administration/politics] sprechen [speak to NP[Counteragent:person in administration/politics]]
NP[Activity] machen [do NP[Activity]]
aus NP[EVENT] lernen [learn from NP[Event]]
COMPANY / INSTITUTION
KANN / WILL
NP[Action] (wieder) beginnen/starten [(re)start NP[Action]]
NP[Goal] erreichen [reach NP[Goal]]
geholfen werden [being helped]
NP[Container portal:borders] (wieder) öffnen [(re)open NP[Container portal:borders]]
NP[Goal] erreichen [reach NP[Goal]]
NP[Benificiary] unterstützen [support NP[Benificiary]]
NP[Money] zahlen [pay NP[Money]]
NP[Benficiary:associations/companies/other state/people] helfen [help NP[Benficiary:associations/companies/other state/people]]
ACTION / REGULATION / RULE
weiterhin gelten [be valid further on]
erfolgen [take place]
NP[Process:company failure/virus spread] verhindern [impede NP[Process:company failure/virus spread]]
beraten werden [be discussed]
zu NP[Action] dienen [serve to NP[Action]]
NP/CLAUSE[Action/State] sicherstellen [ensure NP/CLAUSE[Action/State]]
EVENT / INSTITUTION / TRAFFIC
PP[State:geschlossen/gesichert/verboten] bleiben [stay PP[State:closed/secured/prohibited]]
Epistemic and potential background
The epistemic and the potential conversational background are treated together here, since the corresponding constructions in all cases presuppose possibilities and thus non-knowledge (Janich 2018). The difference is that the epistemic conversational background involves a subjective evaluation and thus disclosure of personal uncertainty, whereas the potential background constitutes an objective possibility, i.e. suggests an objectivist, rational approach to non-knowledge (Müller/Bartsch/Zinn in press). In addition, it must be considered here that the goal formulations formed with können also – as shown above – have epistemic or potential secondary meanings and must therefore be considered when assessing the significance of non-knowledge in the discourse. The epistemic conversational background can be indexed by all modal verbs. The interpretation is often (but not only) triggered by subjunctive forms of verbs and cotextual markers such as epistemic adverbs. The choice of modal verb triggers certain epistemic nuances of meaning in each case, which cannot be discussed here for reasons of space. In our sample (Fig. 12), können (45% mostly in the subjunctive: könnte(n)) is found above all (a), along with sollen (sollte(n); 22%) and dürfen (dürfte(n); 19%).
The potential background is usually marked with können (in the indicative) (85%). One can see from citation (a) that the possibility indicated here is introduced as conditionally factual with the können-construction. The citation is taken from a caption in the context of the interview with a virologist. It is typical in that the construction is often found in reported or quoted expert statements. There are also cases where sollen takes over this marking. This is the case in conditional clauses without subjunction, especially when a normative background is indicated in the matrix clause. With sollen, the author introduces a factual possibility that is constructed as a constituted condition of the demand in the matrix clause (b). While the potential background is mainly found in statements that revolve directly around COVID-19 in a virologic or medical context, the epistemic background, i.e. the subjective marking of uncertainty, is mainly encountered when talking about social, economic and cultural consequences of the pandemic (c).
Die tückischen Coronaviren verbreiten sich per Tröpfcheninfektion: Gelangen sie an Schleimhäute, kann man sich infizieren. Bild plus, 04.04.2020 [The treacherous coronaviruses spread by droplet infection: if they get on mucous membranes, you can become infected.]
Sollten Bürger in den vergangenen 14 Tagen Kontakt zu einem an Covid-19-Erkrankten gehabt haben, müssen sie umgehend das Gesundheitsamt […] informieren. Stuttgarter Zeitung, 04.04.2020 [If citizens have had contact with a person infected with Covid 19 in the past 14 days, they must immediately inform the public health department […].]
Die Zahl der infizierten Schlachtarbeiter in Deutschland lag schon vergangenen Freitag bei über 600 und dürfte inzwischen vierstellig sein. 14.05.2020 [The number of infected slaughter workers in Germany was already over 600 last Friday and is now likely to be in four figures.]
The patterns of marking epistemic and potential background in the sample show that the topics in the corresponding modal constructions have a wide semantic range. Potential backgrounds can be related to propositions whose topics are medical treatments, citizens, institutions or states. Epistemic backgrounds are invoked when certain developments and data are interpreted and when the consequences and the course of the pandemic are written about from a lay perspective or in the context of interpreting expert statements.
ACTION / MEDICATION / TREATMENT
sich mit NP[Virus] anstecken [contract NP[Virus]]
NP[Decision] entscheiden [decide NP[Decision]]
NP[Meaning] / CLAUSE[Proposition] bedeuten [mean NP[Meaning] / CLAUSE[Proposition]]
sich um NP[Topic:person/Spitze des Eisbergs] handeln [be NP[Topic:person/tip of the iceberg]]
DÜRFTE/KÖNNTE(epistemic) / KANN(potential)
(noch lange/eine Weile) dauern [take long / a while]
NP[Process] folgen [come on the heels of NP[Process]]
zu NP[Process] führen [result in NP[Process]]
zu NP[Process] führen [result in NP[Process]]
NP[PATIENT] infizieren [infect NP[PATIENT]]
sich ausbreiten [spread]
NP[PATIENT] infizieren [infect NP[PATIENT]]
es DÜRFTE/KÖNNTE(epistemic) zu NP[Process] kommen [NP[Process] may occur]
es KANN(potential) NP[Process] geben [there can be NP[Process]]
It is instructive here to look at the distribution of conversational backgrounds across the newspapers in the corpus: The potential background, which indicates rational handling of non-knowledge and specialist discourse, is documented more than four times as often in DIE ZEIT compared to, for example, BILD am Sonntag.Footnote 14 In the case of the epistemic speech background, the distribution is not quite as clear. However, the newspapers that publish discussion articles dominate.Footnote 15