‘Possibly’ means that we’re not going to the game.

I published this post a little while ago on my previous blog. Just to have some continuity, I am reposting it onto this blog.

Much research has been done on modality and modal adverbs. As to the epistemic domain, it is often said that ‘possibly’ denotes a 50% likelihood that something is true and that ‘probably’ expresses high likelihood. As such, ‘possibly’ has been related to the modal verb ‘may/might’. While watching a film (The Pursuit of Happyness) the other day, I could not help but be fascinated by the following dialogue (bold is emphasis in speech, cursive are the modal markers):


Father: And maybe we’re going to the game.

Son: Where are we going now?

Father: Just to see someone about my job.

Son: I don’t understand.

Father: You don’t understand what?

Son: Are we going to the game?

Father: I said possibly we’re going to the game. You know what possiblymeans?

Son: Like probably?

Father: No, probably means there’s a good chance that we’re going to the game. And possibly means we mightwe might not. What does probably mean?

Son: It means we have a good chance.

Father: And what does possibly mean?

Son: I know what possibly means.

Father: What does it mean?

Son: It means that we’re not going to the game.

This little dialogue is a beautiful reflection of the subtle nuances of the English modal system, where ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’ and ‘might’ are linked and opposed to the present progressive tense and the adverb ‘probably’. Even more, where ‘possibly’ is related to the negative. I don’t have that much to say about this – because I should actually be writing a paper – but thought it was a particularly interesting bit of the film to share with you interested readers!



Eroding semiotics – the time smileys lost noses and eyes

Language change is a funny thing. It can cause frequent items to erode and go from a fully lexical, and thus understandable and retrievable, item to an altogether weird amalgamation of sounds. Take the standard example we’ve all grown tired of: ‘I do not know’ > ‘I dunno’, or ‘It does not matter’ > ‘Dun matte(r)’. Yes, us speakers are funny creatures, but it is not only in speech that such reductive processes are found (as has been frequently shown).

The smiley in written language is now common practice for nearly all computer users – even for less talented users like myself. But a while ago, something was alienating to me up to the extent that it kept bothering me in the back of my mind. Now I have finally formed some theory as to what was going on. It was during some frequent email correspondence that I noticed that my correspondent ‘must have had a fawlty keyboard’. After all, every time this person used a smiley, only part of it would show, viz. the bracket ‘)’, or ‘(‘. But then, I noticed another thing: the person’s colon made sporadic appearances when introducing lists for example. That was proof: the use of the colon wasn’t lost on this person, it was just not necessary anymore for smileys. Indeed, the smiley seems to have gone through the following reductive process, through which the poor semiotic has lost most of its features: its eyes and nose:

‘this is a joke/funny’ or ‘I feel happy’    >     🙂    >    🙂    >    )

I started wondering: if not due to a fawlty keyboard, why would one want to gradually get rid of what makes a smiley a smiley? Of course this seems to happen to all items in noteworthy change. So what’s more? Well, time is money, so economy jumped to mind straight away. Thank you capitalism. Now, we cannot forget about routinisation. We’re all so used to seeing the symbols that make up a smiley, that our interpretative skills would not have to make much of an effort to understand the mere bracket. Next, though, another – perhaps trivial – thing dawned on me: Microsoft Office (and I assume other such computer software programs). Yes, indeed; whenever we want to save a file or a document, giving it an appropriate name which expresses our happiness about finishing our latest blogpost (to mention but a random example), the bugger won’t let us use symbols, including the beloved colon! Is this part of the breeding ground for the development of the smiley?

I agree, the latter is quite speculative, but maybe the importance of computer-language shouldn’t be underestimated. This little example shows again that our spoken means of expressing (feelings) have been moulded to the constraints of our time: ‘time is money’ (economy), ‘we’re creatures of habit’ (routinisation) and ‘the confines of limited virtual space’ (the computer).

Most interesting perhaps is that this applies not only to the written realm but is also expanding into the spoken realm where people have been attested to say ‘lol‘, for instance. From a functional perspective, this could be quite revealing into communicative behaviour. Is this just a sign of the integration of these computer-induced acronyms, or do they serve other functions too? I can think of a few for ‘lol’ that I have come across. Sometimes, it seems as if we use it as a mitigator in order to not threaten someone else’s face. In other words, when we say ‘lol’ (well, I don’t, actually…), sometimes we don’t mean that we’re laughing out loud (because then we would do so probably) but we mean ‘you’re actually not being that funny, but I’ll say lol to accommodate for you’. In other circumstances, though, the acronym is a reinforcer of our harty laugh: ‘you are actually being funny’. So, are we reinforcing the good old laugh (and other facial and linguistic expressions) with a new paradigm of acronyms and featureless smiles? In reality, do we actually poke our tongues out? I have definitely seen it done more often.

Sadly, these speculations are actually outside of my field of study, but I thought it was quite an interesting thing to note. Discourse analysts are probably already heavily working on the smile(y) as I type ).

ICAME – Disappearances and Failures in Language Change

Wednesday, I was lucky enough to attend a pre-conference workshop free of charge of the ICAME conference in Leuven organised by the University of Leuven and the University of Namur. Despite the fact I had to choose 1 from 5 very interesting workshops, I was soon – evidently – drawn towards WS3 on Disappearances and Failures in Language ChangeHendrik De Smet and Peter Petré hosted, introduced and concluded 5 most inspiring talks by Florian DolbergMalte RosemeyerMarianne Hundt, Mathieu Fraikin & Peter Petré and Stefan Diemer.

It was Hendrik De Smet and Peter Petré’s aim to raise awareness that the contemporary focus on success stories in language change, most notably grammaticalisation studies, do not (and indeed should not) constitute the whole picture. ‘There are two sides to the coin of language change’ resonated clearly in the talks and the call for papers. Grammaticalisation studies (and studies on language change at large) have focused on stories of emancipation and entrenchment mainly, leading to a perhaps wrong conception that grammaticalisation inevitably implies conventionalization and routinisation. This, however, is not entirely true, which is remarked less often than neglected. Accepting the above also has its repercussions on the importance of frequency: although frequency is certainly a prerequisite of sorts for grammaticalisation (which does not necessarily lead to entrenchment), frequency in itself cannot be seen as conclusive or explanatory nor as a direct cause of success stories in language change. Additionally, it seems to me that the same principles of intralinguistic competition and system pressure and extralinguistic pressures underlie both the creation and the dissolution of linguistic items and paradigms.

The workshop was particularly interesting to me because I am currently conducting research on a seemingly disappearing modal paradigm in the English language, viz. the comparative modal better-constructions (‘had better’, ‘ ‘d better’, ‘better’). Making the topic even more interesting are conflicting views on the modal paradigm: on the one hand we witness that the well-established ‘traditional’ modal verbs are actually also declining; on the other hand Krug (2000) documents on new emerging modals (gonna, wanna, gotta, etc.) acting as replacements of the older modal verbs. The question where the better constructions belong and whether they will eventually assimilate to the emerging modals or disappear like the traditional modal verbs now seems more pressing than ever.. So, we are witnessing something like this:

modal verbs – decline

better constructions – decline        will there be analogy? or dismissal?

emerging modals -rise ­                       what is the role of entrenchment and frequency

Malte Rosemeyer, with his usage-based account on English and Spanish be + pp, raised some interesting points on persistence and entrenchment. His talk got me thinking; if the modal verb paradigm is declining, and even the less conventionalized modal verb replacements (‘competitors’) are experiencing a similar decline, could this mean that competition is lost or loosened between grammatical modal expressions? Going a few speculative steps further: could this mean that the entrenchment of the modal paradigm is slowly becoming less important to the English speaker, and why?

Stefan Diemer ended the talks on a positive note and gave all of us modality lovers hope: linguistic items can stage a comeback! I wonder when the modals (or anything like them) will strike back… Must they, need they, should they, can they, will they?