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Recent changes in the modal system of English

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‘Current’ or ‘recent’ change is an emerging research area which recognises that short-term changes are an important part of grammar systems. Electronic corpora such as the Diachronic Corpus of Present Day English (DCPSE) developed at the Survey of English Usage, University College London, make it possible to study recent linguistic changes.

This paper uses data from DCPSE to investigate changes in the modal system of English that have occurred over a thirty year period from the early 1960s to the early 1990s. The core modals must, shall and will are examined and the following questions are addressed:

  • Are the core modals decreasing?
  • Are the core modals becoming ‘monosemous’?

Following recent work on the English modal system which suggests a possible ‘competition’ between core modals and semi-modals (see Krug (2000), Leech (2003), Smith (2003) and Tagliamonte and Smith (2006), among others), a third question will also be considered:

  • Can changes in the core modals be correlated with changes in the use and frequency of use of the semi-modals (have to, have got to and be going to).

Krug, M. (2000) Emerging English Modals: A Corpus-Based Study of Grammaticalization. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Leech, G. (2003) “Modality on the move: the English modal auxiliaries 1961-1992”. In Facchinetti, R. et al., Modality in Contemporary English. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 223-240.

Smith, N. (2003) Changes in modals and semi-modals of strong obligation and epistemic necessity in recent British English In Facchinetti, R. et al., Modality in Contemporary English. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 241-266.

Tagliamonte, S. & J. Smith (2006) Layering, competition and a twist of fate. Diachronica 23: 2, 341-380.

This talk is part of the Historical Linguistics Research Cluster series.

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