Dissertation > Language, writing > FOREIGN > English > Semantics,vocabulary,semantic

A Diachronic Study of the Semantic Evolution of Primary English Modal Verbs

Author XieJiaWei
Tutor YuJianPing
School Yanshan University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords primary English modal verbs semantic changes subject-oriented modality speaker-oriented modality epistemic modality
CLC H313
Type Master's thesis
Year 2010
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As one of important and effective devices for expressing modality, English modal verbs have been widely used in both spoken and written language and play an indispensable role. Just as the name implies, modal verbs indicates the speaker’s attitudes and opinions on things or acts, such as possibility, obligation or necessity. Modal auxiliaries themselves have certain meanings and add some emotive colors to the predicate of a sentence or an utterance. Although it is acknowledged that modal auxiliaries are one of the sub-categories of auxiliary, many scholars hold that the etymological roots of modal auxiliaries are content verbs or full verbs. With the development of times, they have experienced dramatic semantic changes and have become an independent category in English.Coates and Palmer have pointed out the polysemy and fuzziness of modern English modal verbs and have emphasized that the key to understand modal verbs is to understand their indeterminacy. Based on the two scholars’semantic classification of modal verbs, the thesis takes the primary English modals—MAY, CAN, MUST, WILL and SHALL as the object of the study. It aims to make clear the following questions. Firstly, what is the specific changing path of each modal verb? Secondly, is there any regularity in the semantic development of the five modal verbs? Thirdly, what are the motivation and mechanism of the semantic changes?The author divides the history of English into four stages, and sets up the corresponding corpora covering literature, politics, law, speeches and interviews, etc, and then analyzes the data qualitatively and quantitatively in two ways: On the one hand, with the help of the softwares SPSS and Wconcordance 3.0, the thesis makes a statistic and descriptive analysis of the five primary modal verbs, including using frequencies of each modal in different historical periods, and then summarizes changing paths and regularities of these modal verbs. On the other hand, it analyzes the causes and mechanisms of the semantic changes from the perspectives of pragmatics and cognitive linguistics.In this thesis, the study finds that sense overlapping, broadening, narrowing and conversion of the five primary English modals occurred in different extent and at different levels in Old English and Middle English periods. However, till Early Modern English period, senses of the five words have been basically fixed and only differ in the using frequency from that of Modern English. The thesis also finds that the indeterminacy of modern modal verbs is due to their diachronic evolution to some extent. And the changing regularities of modals can be summarized as“full verb—root modality—epistemic modality”or“full verb—subject-oriented modality—speaker-oriented modality/discourse-oriented—epistemic modality”. The semantic changes are motivated by grammaticalization, metaphor, metonymy, categorization and decategorization and so on.All in all, based on the self-established corpora, this thesis carries a relatively comprehensive analysis on the use and semantic changes of the five English modal verbs, and it is expected to provide some useful information in English teaching and learning, old English literature translation, etymological lexicography and language research.

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