Someone challenged me to translate the phrase "You must not fear" into my conlang, and I was stumped, because I couldn't pin down the modality of the phrase. I came up with a phrase meaning "You are obligated not to fear", but it clearly doesn't mean that. It's not a command in the traditional sense, nor specifying an obligation; it's more like a reassurance...

What modality does this phrase have? Are there any crosslinguistic parallels that would help me to understand this construction?

Edit: the passage is from Dune:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Source: Dune by Frank Herbert

  • 1
    When you say "it clearly doesn't mean that", do you mean that in the same way that "I need to go" clearly doesn't mean "I must go", but they are clearly very similar? What kind of theory are you working with? Would it be sufficient if I said "deontic, not epistemic"?
    – user6726
    Jun 30, 2016 at 1:57
  • It wouldnt be entirely sufficient, an explanation would also rock.
    – Lou
    Jun 30, 2016 at 2:06
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    Deontic (despite what you say). The passage from Dune is an exhortation -- also deontic.
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 30, 2016 at 2:57
  • Isn't this simply an arachaic form of "You don't need to fear"? Jun 30, 2016 at 5:52
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    Do it yourself. So, what's the correct translation to "your conlang"(whatever this means)? As a side note, "I must not fear" perfectly translates into Russian "Мне нельзя бояться", while for "You ..." this construct is somehow felt as less appropriate.. Depends on the context, really.
    – tum_
    Jun 30, 2016 at 12:23

2 Answers 2


So the word I was looking for was the hortative modality. This is a set of modalities where the speaker strongly encourages or exhorts someone to do something. Specifically, I think it's either the dehortative or inhortative modality, where the speaker discourages an action, as in "You must not fear."

This wikipedia article has useful information to this effect; props to @GregLee who prompted me to search "exhortative" as a mood on Wikipedia.

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    There is of course no hortative mood in English grammar. Wikipedia is just silly about this, as many grammars are.
    – BillJ
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:43
  • What makes you say that?
    – Lou
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:58
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    Mood is category of grammar; it's a grammatical form of verbs marking modality. In English, mood is mainly marked by the modal auxiliaries ("may", "must" "will" etc), though we still have the 'irrealis' mood as in If I were you, but that's a relic from an earlier system.
    – BillJ
    Jul 1, 2016 at 6:52
  • There is "mode" as grammatical category but there is "modality" as the force modifying parts of speach. Thus while there is no "hortative mood" encoded in the morphemes of an English verb, it does not mean the modality itself cannot be expressed by other means (morphemes of a different clause, functional verb as in this case or purely lexically).
    – Eleshar
    Aug 31, 2016 at 14:48

Modals -- and English modals in particular -- have several different varieties of sense.

Must has two senses:

  1. the Deontic sense, which is social and deals with obligation and limitation of actions

    • He must be back home by midnight.
    • You must not panic when she appears.
  2. the Epistemic sense, which is logical and deals with judgements about probability

    • This must be the place.
    • She must not have heard the news yet.

So if a modal isn't making sense one way, try another.

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