The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LFRG 4/12 - Igor Yanovich

Speaker: Igor Yanovich
Date/Time: Thursday April 12, 10 am
Location: 32-D831
Title: Modal hopes and fears: A diachronic study


In Modern English, may and might are generally modals of epistemic possibility and permission. That, however, cannot explain its uses in sentences like (1) or (2) (from BNC).

(1) The contrast illustrates that music moves on, the NME moves on, grudges don’t last forever, and I hope this may be so for at least another 40 years.
(2) Omar learnt that he was related to the Sultan, and we hoped that we might persuade him to provide us with a guide to Aussa.

One possible explanation of such facts is to say that may/might in such examples is a mood indicator rather than a full-fledged modal, cf. Portner 1997. But, as Portner notes, the mood-indicating may is not productive in the present-day English. If the mood analysis is correct, then it should be possible to explain the present-day distribution of may in historical terms.

In this talk, I will discuss how may/might first started to appear in the complements of verbs hope and fear, and what consequences that has for our understanding of modal meaning development in general, and of the ‘mood hypothesis’ concerning today’s distribution in particular.