March 27, 2005

The disappearing modal: for those who'll believe anything

Happy Easter from Language Log to all our readers. And a quick Q&A reality check for those who could not believe their ears as they listened to NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" program this morning.

Q: Was there (perhaps I dreamed it) an interview with a retired Penguin Books editor called James Cochrane about a book called something like Between You and I ?
A: Yes, there was. You can listen to it here. Cochrane was talking about his book Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English.

Q: Did he really say (possibly my ears hadn't quite woken up) that the modal verb form might was being eliminated in favor of may and "has practically disappeared from the language"?
A: Yes, he really did say that.

Q: Presumably the word is almost gone from the World Wide Web, then. How many residual web pages are there on which this disappearing verb still appears?
A: According to Google's rough estimate, about 140,000,000. (Perhaps a few of those use the noun might meaning ‘power’ but not the modal verb, but the noun isn't very common, so most of those will be uses of the modal.) Cochrane is alluding to a small change that has been creeping into some varieties of English for some time: may is being used in certain contexts where the preterite form of other verbs would occur: there is a well-established minority dialect that has "They feared they may get lost" for "They feared they might get lost" and so on. The topic is treated in pages 202-203 of The Cambridge Grammar. But those dialects still have might in numerous other contexts (like "I might be able to, if we're lucky"). The word might isn't dying out.

Q: Oh. Still there on a hundred and forty million web pages? That is quite a lot for a word that has "practically disappeared". Is James Cochran, then, nothing but a mendacious pontificating old windbag?
A: Yes, it would appear that he is an utter fraud.

Q: Why do people say these completely indefensible things about language that can be checked up on so easily?
A: Possibly because they know that with hardly anyone ever taking even one college course in linguistics, public awareness of the facts about language and languages ranges from the minimal to the derisory.

But for the most part it is a mystery why linguistic subject matter is treated so differently from other material in which science has been interested; it baffles all of us here at Language Log Plaza. Imagine if an amateur wrote a book on ecology (How Now Brown Cow: A Little Book of Threatened Animals) and said that mice have "practically become extinct" in America. Would the interviewer listen credulously and politely as the nutball pothered on, not even alluding to any evidence for the absurd claim?

Yet people can get away with saying just about anything about language. Only a week or two ago NPR had somebody on who declared that the Irish language has no word for sex, and he too was listened to politely and not challenged. Keep your hand on your wallet when people tell you things about language; they're convinced you'll believe absolutely anything, so they have little motive to stick to even a vague semblance of truth.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 27, 2005 03:47 PM