WS4: Lest we miss them

Workshop 4: Lest we miss them


Marine Vuillermet (CNRS-DDL, Lyon)
Eva Schultze-Berndt (University of Manchester)



This workshop aims at drawing attention to a largely ignored construction, namely precautioning clauses, i.e. clauses with precautioning morphemes which encode both the high probability and the undesirability of an event (1).

Ex. 1

In addition to high probability and undesirability, a third feature of precautioning clauses is that, unlike the slightly better-known apprehensive (mood) markers, they systematically associate with an explicit “ preemptive situation ” (Evans 199 5: 264), aka “precautionary actions ” in Lichtenberk (1995: 298). The preemptive clause typically has directive illocutionary force, with the aim of preventing the probable and undesirable situation from happening. An example of a dedicated precautionary morpheme is the (archaic) lest in English, as in Put the milk into the fridge lest it goes off. Languages with no dedicated morphology still have numerous precautioning strategies, which may not be restricted to undesirable consequences, like ‘in case’, ‘if not + might’, ‘otherwise’/‘or else’, and ‘before’ as in Put the milk into the fridge before it goes off. The relationship between the precautionary and the preemptive clause may be one of subordination, coordination or simple juxtaposition.

Precautioning clauses are known under a variety of terms – avertive clauses, lest-clauses, negative purpose clauses, possible consequence clauses, preventive clauses, volitive of fear, warning clauses, etc. – but little attention has been paid to them so far. Noteworthy contributions, mostly on individual languages exist (e.g. Lichtenberk 1995; Evans 1995, 264 ff.; François 2003, 301 – 12; Vuillermet 2018), as well as limited crosslinguistic studies (Verstraete 2005; Dixon 2009, 23 – 25; Schmidtke-Bode 2009, 129 – 44). The latter reveal that precautioning clauses are not a rare phenomenon. In his 80-language sample, Schmidtke-Bode’s (2009) identifies 19 languages with precautioning clauses. A recent study including 56 South America languages reports 18 languages with precautioning clauses (Vuillermet 2017). While such constructions seems well represented in the Australian, Oceanic and South American areas, they seem particularly rare in the Eurasian (and African) area (Vuillermet 2015; Schmidtke-Bode 2009, 130) – yet another reason for the scarce literature and terminological profusion.

In the existing literature, a main issue has been their syntactic / pragmatic status as dependent or independent clauses (see for instance Austin 1981, 229 or François 2003, 304-310), or the semantic and pragmatic links between the use of the morphemes in main vs. dependent clauses (Verstraete 2005). Based on the ‘lest’ morpheme ada in Toqabaqita (Austronesian), Lichtenberk’s (1995) seminal paper convincingly argues for distinguishing three functions: the primary PRECAUTIONING function equivalent to the English lest-clauses, the FEAR function (clauses embedded under predicates of fearing, I fear lest...), and the APPREHENSIONAL-EPISTEMIC function (attested in English in the fixed expression Lest we forget) (2).

Ex. 2

Lichtenberk further subdivides the PRECAUTIONING function into the AVERTIVE and IN-CASE functions (3).

(3) a. AVERTIVE function: Take your umbrella lest you be wet / so that you won't get wet.
b. IN CASE function: Take your umbrella lest it rain / ??? so that it won't rain.

The two differ in that there is a direct causal link between the two propositions only in the precautioning function – in contrast, for example, taking an umbrella avoids the consequences of the rain, but not the undesirable event itself. Martuthunira (Pama-Nyungan, Lichtenberk (1995: 308, citing Dench (1988)) distinguishes morphologically between the two functions, by the addition of different subordinating case forms to a general ‘lest’ conjunction. Many authors describe precautioning clauses as “negative purpose clauses” even though such a term does not cover the IN-CASE function.

Supporting Lichtenberk’s (1995) analysis, a language like Ese Ejja (Takanan) has distinct morphemes for the APPREHENSIONAL-EPISTEMIC and the PRECAUTIONING functions (4) (Vuillermet 2018), though no dedicated morpheme for fear complementation.

Ex. 4

The two functions can be linked the other way round: languages like Tariana (Arawak) obtain the PRECAUTIONING function via the embedding of an APPREHENSIONAL-EPISTEMIC marker into a speech report construction (Aikhenvald 2003, 385 – 86) (5). The precautioning function can finally be encoded in nominal phrases, like in Manambu (Ndu) where the possible, undesirable event can be nominalized and marked by the dative-aversive case marker (Aikhenvald 2009).

Ex. 5 

In Schmidtke-Bode ’s (2009, 130 ff.) typological study on purpose clauses, the precautioning morphemes in the 19 languages identified do not belong to a particular syntactic category – they may be conjunctions, adverbial suffixes, postpositions, TAM markers, particles, or auxiliaries. The precautioning constructions tend to have their own specific argument-structural configurations: explicit subjects are significantly more frequent in negative purpose clauses (our precautioning clauses) than in positive purpose clause. This specific configuration emanates from the precautioning clauses’ overwhelming preference for (entirely) different subjects (36.9%), unlike positive purpose clauses (5.8 %). It probably reflects the fact that undesirable possible consequences mostly originate in a third party, while welcome ones are often self-triggered.

Aims of the workshop

The workshop will bring together scholars primarily working on lesser-known languages to study the crosslinguistic variation of precautioning clauses. Thanks to descriptions of the forms, syntactic strategies and semantic profiles of such clauses in a given language, family or area, the workshop will pave the way for a typology of such constructions. Possible topics include:

  • Semantic variation: Lichtenberk (1995) identified the AVERTIVE vs. IN CASE functions; do other semantic and formal subtypes of precautioning clauses exist?
  • Morpho-syntactic encoding: H ow is the link between precautioning and preemptive clauses marked? If morphologically marked, does the marker belong to a structured paradigm, and if yes, which? If not marked, how does the pragmatic link arise?
  • Syntactic status: Precautioning clauses may be nominal phrases, dependent or independent clauses; does a given syntactic status tend to be linked to a specific function?
  • Argument-structural configurations: Is the different-subject tendency (Schmidtke-Bode 2009, Dench 1988) the rule? Are there languages which only allow certain argumental configurations, and what are the semantico-pragmatic consequences of reduced argumental configurations?
  • Origin of undesirability component: How does the notion of undesirability arise from morphemes or constructions that may originally only encode potentiality, temporality (Boogart 2009; Angelo and Schultze-Berndt 2016), causality, or even mere volition (de Reuse 1994)?
  • Historical development: Is Lichtenberk’s (1995:319) proposal of a development (precautioning > fear > apprehensional-epistemics) plausible in all languages with such functions?
  • Areal distribution: Are dedicated precautioning morphemes really absent from Africa?
  • Diffusion: Are precautioning clauses prone to diffusion?
  • Clause order: Does the preemptive clause always tend to precede the precautionary clause (Dixon 2009:48)?
  • Strategies: What strategies exist in languages with no dedicated precautioning morphology? What are the conditions under which other markers (e.g. ‘otherwise’) encode undesirable events?


  • Aikhenvald, A. Y. 2003. A Grammar of Tariana, from Northwest Amazonia. Cambridge Grammatical Descriptions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • ———. 2009. “The Semantics of Clause Linking in Manambu.” In The Semantics of Clause Linking: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, edited by R. M. W. Dixon and A. Y. Aikhenvald, 1 edition, 118–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Angelo, Denise, and Eva Schultze-Berndt. 2016. “Beware Bambai – lest It Be Apprehensive.” In Loss and Renewal: Australian Languages since Colonisation, edited by F. Meakins and C. O’Shannessy, 255–96. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Austin, Peter. 1981. “Switch-Reference in Australia.” Language 57 (2):309–34.
  • Boogart, Ronny. 2009. “Een Retorische Straks-Constructie.” In Woorden Wisselen. Voor Ariane van Santen Bij Haar Afscheid van de Leidse Universiteit, edited by Ronny Boogart, Marijke Mooijaart, and Marijke van der Wal, Stichting Neerlandistiek Lei-den, 167–183. Leiden.
  • Dench, Alan. 1988. “Complex Sentences in Martuthunira.” In Complex Sentence Construc-tions in Australian Languages, edited by Peter Austin, 15:97–139. Typological Stud-ies in Language. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Dixon, R. M. W. 2009. “The Semantics of Clause Linking in a Typological Perspective.” In The Semantics of Clause Linking: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, edited by R. M. W. Dixon and Aikhenvald Y. Aikhenvald, 1 edition, 1–55. Oxford University Press.
  • Evans, Nicholas. 1995. A Grammar of Kayardild: With Historical-Comparative Notes on Tangkic. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • François, Alex. 2003. La Sémantique Du Prédicat En Mwotlap (Vanuatu). Linguistique de La Société de Linguistique de Paris. Leuven-Paris: Peeters.
  • Lichtenberk, Frantisek. 1995. “Apprehensional Epistemics.” In Modality in Grammar and Discourse, edited by Joan Bybee and Suzanne Fleischman, 293–327. Typological Studies in Language. Amsterdam - Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Reuse, Willem Joseph de. 1994. Siberian Yupik Eskimo: The Language and Its Contacts with Chukchi. University of Utah Press.
  • Schmidtke-Bode, Karsten. 2009. A Typology of Purpose Clauses. John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Schultze-Berndt, Eva. 2017. “Just You Wait! Temporal Expressions as the Source of (Grammaticalised?) Apprehensive Markers.” presented at the Séminaire du laboratoire, DDL, Lyon, France, October 8.
  • Verstraete, Jean-Christophe. 2005. “The Semantics and Pragmatics of Composite Mood Marking: The Non-Pama-Nyungan Languages of Northern Australia.” Linguistic Typology 9 (2).
  • Vuillermet, Marine. 2015. “A Tentative Typology of Apprehensives.” presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea, Leiden, September 3rd.
  • ———. 2017. “Apprehensional Morphology in South America: A Preliminary Account.” presented at the Séminaire du laboratoire, DDL, Lyon, France, October 8.
  • ———. 2018. “The Apprehensional Domain in Ese Ejja: Making the Case for a Typological Domain?” Edited by Maïa Ponsonnet and Marine Vuillermet. Studies in Language 42/1, Special issue -- Morphemes and Emotions across the World’s Languages, 27p.
Online user: 1