Modalité épistémique et discours scientifique


Epistemic modality markers are linguistic expressions that explicitly qualify the truth value of a proposition, by marking the informational content as either certain or uncertain. The present thesis focuses on epistemic modality markers indicating uncertainty, and explores the use of such markers in academic discourse. The material used is compiled within the larger KIAPcorpus and is a selection of research articles written in three different languages (French, Norwegian and English) and belonging to two different disciplines (linguistics and medicine). Carried out within the framework of the Norwegian KIAP project (Kulturell Identitet i Akademisk Prosa (Cultural Identity in Academic Prose), the study adopts a doubly contrastive approach, focusing on variation across languages as well as across disciplines. Gender differences are also examined. The first part of the thesis forms the theoretical basis for the analyses and is to a large extent devoted to a discussion of the concept of modality and to relevant previous research. It is argued that the linguistic category of modality is traditionally quite poorly defined in the literature. Consequently, there is not always coherence between its definition and the linguistic items actually included in it. Considerable emphasis is put on the delimitation of the category of epistemic modality and the ways in which it differs from and overlaps with related categories such as alethic modality, sporadicity and hedging. The second part of the thesis explores the frequency (ch.6) and pragmatic functions (ch.7) of a selection of epistemic modality markers in the corpus. The study shows that French-speaking authors use significantly fewer such markers than do English-speaking and Norwegian authors, suggesting that language background has a large influence on the authors’ use of hedges. As far as frequency is concerned, no major differences were observed between the disciplines, nor between male and female authors. However, the factors of discipline and language seem to be interrelated, in the sense that differences between languages are larger within linguistics than within medicine, thus illustrating the fact that medicine is a more internationalised discipline than linguistics. Moreover, the two disciplines seem to prefer different types of markers, and there are notable differences when it comes to the pragmatic functions the markers tend to have. In the medical texts, the occurrences most often have a content-oriented function, i.e. they are used to indicate hypotheses, to hedge conclusions or to signal methodological limitations. These usages, except for the latter (which seems to be typical of experimental articles), are also frequent in the linguistic texts, but in addition the linguists make use of more interpersonal functions. For example, they use epistemic modality to mitigate criticism put forward against the work of others and to signal precaution while interpreting other researchers’ texts or findings. These observations reflect the fact that the norms for argumentation differ between disciplines. Overt and direct argumentation is more recurrent in linguistics than in medicine, and thus the use of epistemic modality or hedging as a politeness strategy is more frequent in linguistic articles than in medical ones. The findings are relevant for teachers and students of academic writing as well as for anyone involved in cross-cultural communication between researchers.