A mood in grammar is a verb form that depends on how its containing clause relates to the speaker’s or writer’s wish, intent, or assertion about reality. Mood is distinctive from tense (how a verb's intent relates to its location in time) and aspect (how a verb's intent relates to the flow of time).

There are considered to be three different categories of 'mood': realis (how a verb's intent is to display a fact or declaration about reality), irrealis (how a verb's intent is to indicate an action not known to have happened for a fact), and interrogative mood (considered by some to be an irrealis mood, this is a mood used to indicate a question).

irrealis moods

So which language has been found to contain the most irrealis moods? How about, which language contains the least amount of irrealis moods? Or, which language most commonly uses irrealis moods in day to day conversation?

  • 3
    How about some examples of what you think are "irrealis moods"?
    – jlawler
    Jun 12, 2016 at 15:47
  • 1
    do you not see the link in the question?
    – user13398
    Jun 12, 2016 at 15:48
  • 3
    Is Wikipedia not good enough for your purposes? There is no standard categorization of irrealis moods, many of which (like the English subjunctive) are imaginary anyway.
    – jlawler
    Jun 12, 2016 at 15:52
  • Your question could use some improvement: for example, the link is OK, but it might be nice of you to add a minimal explanation of what irrealis moods are for those that might not know it, and leave the link for those who want to look into it more in depth.
    – Alenanno
    Jun 12, 2016 at 18:33
  • 1
    Browse around WALS: World Atlas of Language Structures in the 'verbal categories' section. They don't have every language, but a very large sample.
    – Mitch
    Sep 12, 2016 at 17:11

1 Answer 1


In attempting to answer this question I think it's useful to distinguish between the terms 'mood' and 'modality':

  • 'Modality' is the category of semantic notions relating to a speakers expression of possibility, necessity, desirability, etc.

  • 'Mood' refers to the grammatical devices used to signal a particular 'modality'.

Every language has a lexicon along with grammatical structures of one kind or another which enable its speakers to express every modality that humans wish to express. But languages differ greatly in their formal moods, the number of grammatical structures dedicated to specific modalities (the meanings). While many languages only have a few grammatical expressions of mood, some have many — it's not clear what the upper limit is but this WP page says that Uralic Samoyedic languages have numerous moods, with Nenets having 16, listed here. Of these 16 there are perhaps 10 that could be considered "irrealis", depending on the definition used. But however they are counted, it is likely that Nenets is an extreme outlier with an unusually large set of irrealis moods and so is a possible answer to the question.

At the other extreme, languages with the fewest irrealis moods, it has been claimed that English has only one, the subjunctive, which is being gradually replaced by the modal verbs. If this eventuates then the number of irrealis moods (in the strict sense) in English will be zero, surely the lowest number possible.

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