The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 3/7 - Igor Yanovich

Speaker: Igor Yanovich
Title: Variable-force modality on the British Isles
Date/Time: Thursday, Mar 7, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

Recent semantic fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest uncovered modals which may render sometimes English necessity modals, other times English possibility ones without being ambiguous (Rullmann et al. 2008, Peterson 2010, Deal 2011). The analyses for those modals either attribute the peculiar behavior to a radical difference from the “European standard” in the semantics of the modal (Rullmann, Matthewson and Davis), or in the shape of the overall modal system (Deal). In this talk, I add to the typology of variable-force modality the Old English *motan (>modern must), which is analyzed in the earlier literature as a possibility modals with perhaps marginal necessity uses. Only by the end of the 15th century did the modal become a normal necessity modal it is now.

I show that in Old English ‘Alfredian’ prose *motan was an unambiguous modal carrying a presupposition of determined future which explains the peculiarities of the modal’s distribution, and creates a variable-force effect. Then I turn to the semantics of the modal in the AB dialect of Early Middle English (a literary variety written in the West Midlands in the first half of 13th century, remarkably focussed for the period of overall decline in English text production). I show that in Early Middle English, *moten (<*motan) was truly ambiguous between necessity and possibility. We can thus observe in the history of English a change from a true non-ambiguous variable-force modal, into a modal ambiguous between possibility and necessity, into a normal necessity modal.