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Modals in Different Varieties of English Research Paper


Introduction

The modern use of some words can be considered wrong though the changes that are natural for the language take place and should be treated as the transitional period in formation of new grammar and vocabulary. In this respect, I would like to analyse the use of modal words and modal verbs in different varieties of English by contemporary speakers comparing those with the results received a few decades earlier.

So, I would like to trace the relation between the origin of speakers and their ability to use modals correctly taking into account the current situation in the language environment and the one that occurred a few decades earlier with regard to the varieties of British and American English in different age groups.

Aim and Scope

The main purpose of this paper consists in investigating the use of modal verbs and expressions in different varieties of English language including mostly the difference between American and British English. Besides, it is necessary to analyse the peculiarities of use of modals by teenagers and children with the help of examples from different corpora of English language.

These corpora include examples of speech from different settings and origins including different age groups, namely children and teenagers, various sources of information such as documents and newspaper articles. One of the major peculiarities of these corpora is the variety of genres including press reportage, editorials, reviews of books and music, letters, periodicals, catalogues and reports as well as fiction, science fiction, adventure, humour, and romance.

Every source will be analysed with regard to the frequency of use of modals in different functions and shifts in the meaning conveyed with the help of modals that can be observed in terms of the period to which the examples refer. Besides, it is also necessary to investigate how children and teenagers were affected by changes in the meaning and the frequency of use of modals by adults and teenagers/children.

Previous Work

As a rule, linguists investigate the most interesting aspects of the language usage in terms of results of the researches to be used in practice. In this respect, the changes that occurred in the use of modals can be related to the shifts in preferences of using modals and quasi-modals.

Besides, population of different continents uses modals and quasi-modals with different frequency as well as representatives of different generations. Moreover, the results of the research can be influenced by the origin of the example taking into account the oral speech and written language because the genre to which the example is referred characterises the formality.

Thus, formal language is supposed to contain more modals whereas informal language is sure to contain more quasi-modals and fewer modals. As reported by Collins, the shift in the use of modals can be seen while comparing the results from British and American English-speaking population in the early 1960s and in the early 1990s respectively (7).

These findings analyse the figures presented in studies by Leech (2003), smith (2003), and Mair and Leech (2006) who investigated the changes that took place in the use of modals taking into account American and British varieties of English language.

Every member of the society has a right to express his/her thoughts in different ways. The variety of ways can be seen from the COLT corpus that includes Bergen Corpus of London Teenage English being a vivid representation of variety of nonverbal means of communication among teenagers and communication of teenagers with members of their families including other siblings and parents, teachers, and strangers.

As a rule, teenagers use more informal language when they communicate with peers; this variant of communication differs greatly from the language used by teenagers with parents and teachers. However, the main aim of the current research is to investigate the frequency of use of different modals and quasi-modals and the percentage of use taking into account modals and quasi-modals ratio in the American corpus primarily.

As suggested by Krug, the attention to quasi-modals is not sufficient in terms of scholarly articles and researches conducted on this issue (1). The researcher analyses the modals and quasi-modals with regard to their grammaticalization and categories typical for modals: “the most salient determinants in the present case are almost certainly phonological form, morphosyntactic properties and discourse frequency of potential category members” (Krug 3).

Though many researchers have compared and contrasted the frequency of using different parts of speech and various phrases and word combinations by native speakers of English with regard to different dialects and genres, it is still necessary to investigate the number of modal used in different periods with regard to information from the Corpus of historical American English, contemporary situation with regard to the information from the Corpus of contemporary American English, and contrast the number of modals used by Americans with the one used by users of the British variety of English with regard to the information from the British national corpus. In other words, the current research is focused on the analysis of data from these three corpora using the theoretical background about the use of modals from researches conducted by other scholars.

Material

The nature of the primary research consists in choosing modals for analysis and comparing the frequency of use of modals in sources of different genres and in spoken language taking into account the situation in American variety of English a hundred years earlier and contemporary situation. I have used the corpora of English language to investigate the frequency of use of modals in different varieties of English though the primary purpose of the research was to compare and contrast the findings from the British variant of English and American variant of English with regard to the historical development of the latter.

In this respect, the most influential limitation was the lack of information on the historical development of the British variant of English over a long period of time. As the changes in the American variant of English could be explored from 1810 to 2000, the changes in the British variant of English could be explored only regarding the results from two last decades dating from 1990 till 2010.

Though I used the modals and quasi-modals that are typical of the English language with regard to all varieties of the language, I faced the difficulties concerning the variety of combinations that were typical of the modals and quasi-modals. In other words, further research could focus on the combinations of other parts of speech with modals and the nature of expressions in terms of mood (imperative or subjunctive) and the attitude of the author of the utterance.

So, the main sources of data include the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the Corpus of Historical American English, and the British National Corpus. I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English to see the frequency of occurrence of different modals in spoken language, fiction, articles from magazines, newspaper articles, and academic sources with regard to the period (1990-2010) to which the use refers.

The Corpus of Historical American English provides researchers with a richer variety of results as it includes the examples of speech dating from 1810 till 2000. In this respect, I was able to analyse the frequency of use of modals in different periods of time with regard to the sources they appeared in, including fiction, non-fiction, magazines, and news. This information enabled me to conduct a research on a great variety of issues concerning the use of word and the peculiarities of word choice for different sources such as fiction and non-fiction.

Besides, it is possible to analyse the percentage of the appearance of modals in fiction and non-fiction. One of the limitations, in this regard, concerns the historical approach that, if used, could explain the frequency of use of certain words due to changes in the country and the world including economical factors, social and cultural development, and shift in lifestyle and values of the population.

The British National Corpus provides researchers with the information on the variety of different word combinations. In this respect, I was able to investigate the frequency of using modals in different setting in terms of the genre and parts of speech with which the modal occurred. The queries could be limited in terms of written and spoken language inserted into examples. In other words, the research turned out to be full of unexpected limitations.

To be more exact, the limitations should have been imposed into the research mode so that I could get the clear data for analysis at the end of the investigation. However, this was not doe at the beginning of the research; so, I had to limit the number of queries and choose more objective and universal samples from all three corpora. In other words, the choice of data was likely to affect the results in an important way if the number of queries is not restricted.

Method

Though the comparative analysis of the use of modals and quasi-modals was conducted by Mair and Leech (2006), it is necessary to view the frequency of use of certain modals and quasi-modals that were reported to have the lowest difference in American and British variants of English. In other words, the study is based on the findings by Mair and Leech (2006) who managed to identify the use of modals and quasi-modals in examples provided by American and British English language corpora.

In this respect, the issue of primary importance is the decline of use of modals and increase in the number of quasi-modals used in the late twentieth – early twenty-first century. Though modals were used more frequently at the beginning of the reported period and the frequency of their use declined toward the end of the reported period, the frequency of use of quasi-modals was just the opposite and it increased toward the end of the same period.

I searched for the frequency of use of the modals shall and should and quasi-modals be supposed to and need to. First, I entered the modal should into the entry boxes of all three corpora mentioned above including the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the Corpus of Historical American English, and the British National Corpus.

This enabled me to see the changes in the use of the modal in a short period of time in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus; also, I could trace more obvious changes in the frequency of use of the modal with the help of queries made through the Corpus of Historical American English. The next step I took was the same procedure with the modal shall, and quasi-modals be supposed to and need to.

The final stage of the research presupposed analysis of data and relevant conclusion made on the basis of the findings. In this respect, I was able to see the changes that took place in the use of modals that were previously reported to have similar changes in both varieties of English including British and American variants and quasi-modals that were previously reported to have a greater difference in changes in these two variants of English language.

As reported by Mair and Leech, the modal shall was used less frequently by people who used the British variant of English (-43.7% compared to the data received in 1960s) and by people who used the American variant of English language (-43.8%).

Similar changes can be observed with regard to the frequency of use of the modal should (-11.8% of British and -13.5% of American). The quasi-modals were used more frequently compared to the period of 1960s when the first set of data was received. Thus, the quasi-modal be supposed to was used more frequently in the British variant (+113.6%) and in the American variant (+6.3%) which shows a great difference in the variants. The quasi-modal need to was used more often as well (+249% in British and +123% in American).

Results and Analysis

The first set of data comes from the comparison of styles and genres used by the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus. The following figure suggests the data received from the British National Corpus.

Figure 1: Frequency of use of the modal should represented by the results from the British National Corpus.

Section/use per million spoken fiction magazine newspaper non-acad academic miscellaneous
9,724.94 7,015.77 8,241.27 7,571.64 8,142.98 10,221.98 11,257.89

Key: non-acad – is the set of non-academic sources whereas written and spoken are not clearly differentiated.

Thus, the British National Corpus provided the information concerning the genres and styles typical for the use of modal should. I turned out that the modal should is used more frequently in spoken language, in academic sources and in sources considered miscellaneous.

These results enabled me to conclude that the frequency of the use of the modal should is still very high with regard to the reported decline of the use. The next step concerned the use of the same modal traced with the help of the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

Figure 2: Frequency of use of the modal should represented by the results from the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

Section/use per million spoken fiction magazine newspaper academic
930.65 622.75 721.51 657.63 897.18

Though the non-academic and miscellaneous sources are not identified as separate subgenres, it is necessary to show that the difference between the British and the American variants is still very high as 9,724.94 words per million in the British variant is much larger than 930.65 words per million in the American variant of English.

In this respect, the difference is already obvious though it is necessary to see the situation that occurred in the frequency of use of the modal should with the help of the results from the Corpus of Historical American English.

This corpus enables me to claim that the frequency of use of the modal should declined greatly while comparing the results from different decades during the entire nineteenth century and the entire twentieth century.

In this respect, the most frequently the modal should was used in the period of 1820s though even then the use of this modal was not as large as the current situation in the British variant of English as there was an average number of 1,649.88 words per million whereas the use of the same modal in the contemporary British variant of English equals an average figure of 7,423.46 words per million.

The next modal that was analysed is shall. The first corpus that should be discussed in this section is the Corpus of Historical American English which provides us with the picture showing changes in the frequency of use of the modal shall comparing the nineteenth and twentieth century. In this respect, we can see that the decline is great, especially while comparing the results on the frequency of use of the modal shall in the early nineteenth century and the ones from the late twentieth century.

Thus the results from the 1810s equal 1,924.31 words per million whereas the same figure is much smaller for the period of 1990-2000 (53.27 words per million). It is also notable that the most frequently the modal shall was used in fiction and in academic sources whereas spoken language, examples from magazines and newspapers show smaller frequency of the use of the modal shall.

Figure 3: Frequency of use of the modal shall represented by the results from the British National Corpus.

Section/use per million spoken fiction magazine newspaper non-acad academic miscellaneous
2,195.98 2,310.60 315.07 330.20 1,160.58 2,139.88 2,024.27

This figure shows that the results differ greatly with regard to the use of the modal shall in the American and in British variants of English. At the same time, the results concerning the genre of use partially coincide for two variants of English language though the British spoken language as well as examples from miscellaneous sources demonstrates the same or similar frequency as the ones from fiction and academic sources as well as in the American variant of English.

Figure 4: Frequency of use of the modal should represented by the results from the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

Section/use per million spoken fiction magazine newspaper academic
22.59 70.29 21.88 14.03 63.93

The results received from the Corpus of Contemporary American English are similar to those reported concerning the use of the Corpus of Historical American English where the use of the modal shall prevailed in fiction and academic sources while it was the least frequent in examples from newspapers (14.03 words per million). This figure can be compared to the results from the same genres for the British variant of English language where the frequency of use of the modal shall equals 2,310.60 words per million and 2,139.88 words per million for the academic sources.

The next unit for analysis was the frequency of use of the quasi-modal be supposed to in British and American variants of English. It is necessary to note that this quasi-modal was analysed in terms of pure entries (supposed to was analysed in queries in order to ensure that all variants are included – be supposed to, is supposed to, are supposed to, am supposed to, ‘m supposed to, ‘re supposed to, etc.)

In this respect, the results for entry supposed to differed greatly for the initial entry be supposed to. As this imposed some limitation on the analysis, I decided to restrict results to the absolute queries that were supposed to include all potentially relevant results.

The results from the Corpus of Historical American English enable us to see that the obvious changes started in the 1930s when the frequency of use of the quasi-modal supposed to was characterised with the 43.21 words per million whereas every coming decade showed increased frequency of use of this quasi-modal leading to the results of 98.32 words per million for the period of 2000s.

One of the most notable features of the frequency of use of the quasi-modal supposed to concerns the sources of examples as in all periods reported in the Corpus of Historical American English, spoken language provided us with the most frequent use of this quasi-modal. The results received from the Corpus of Contemporary American English differ slightly from the ones in the Corpus of Historical American English. Thus, we can see the difference from the figure:

Figure 5: Frequency of use of the quasi-modal supposed to represented by the results from the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

Section/use per million spoken fiction magazine newspaper academic
103.92 121.42 53.12 60.82 24.80

This figure shows that the main sources where the frequency of the use of the quasi-modal supposed to was higher than in the spoken language is the fiction. The results from the British National Corpus are similar to the situation presented in the Corpus of Historical American English where spoken language shows the highest frequency of use of the quasi-modal supposed to.

The final unit for analysis is the quasi-modal need to; as reported by Mair and Leech, the use of this quasi-modal increased dramatically with regard to the results from 1960s compared to the contemporary situation. We can clearly see the frequency of use of the quasi-modal need to with the help of results from the Corpus of Historical American English where the lowest frequency can be observed in the period of 1810s (2.54 words per million) while the highest frequency of use is typical of the period of 2000s (211.14 words per million).

Figure 6: Frequency of use of the quasi-modal need to represented by the results from the British National Corpus.

Section/use per million spoken fiction magazine newspaper non-acad academic miscellaneous
2,555.89 1,028.71 1,589.51 873.46 1,438.18 1,840.44 1,882.11

This figure shows that the use of the quasi-modal need to was the most frequent in the spoken variant of the British English whereas the average frequency is about 1,601.19 words per million which is twice as high as the frequency of use of this quasi-modal in newspapers and is almost 1.5 as low as the frequency of use of the quasi-modal need to in spoken language.

The results received from the Corpus of Contemporary American English provide us with the information similar to the one from the British National corpus which enables us to conclude that the frequency of use of the quasi-modal need to increased compared to the beginning of the early nineteenth century.

Conclusion

The use of modal words and combinations has changed over the last hundred years with regard to the data from the British national corpus (BNC), Corpus of Contemporary American English, and Corpus of Historical American English as the sources of primary research materials.

Besides, it is necessary to note that the use of the modals shall and should differs from the changes in the frequency of use of quasi-modals supposed to and need to. In other words, the data from the corpora demonstrates certain tendencies when the frequency of use of modals declines contrasted to the frequency of use of quasi-modals which increases.

The most obvious changes concern the spoken language where the use of quasi-modals supposed to and need to is higher than in all other genres and sources of data. However, the quasi-modal supposed to is reported to be frequently used in fiction rather than in spoken language according to the results received from the Corpus of Contemporary American English. At the same time, the frequency of use of the modals shall and should tends to decline compared to the results received in the early nineteenth century.

Works Cited

Collins, Peter. Modals and Quasi-Modals in English. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. Print.

Facchinetti, Roberta, Manfred G. Krug, and Frank Robert Palmer (Eds.). Modality in Contemporary English. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2003.

Krug, Manfred G. Emerging English modals: a corpus-based study of grammaticalization. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.

Mair, Christian, and Geoffrey Leech. “Current Changes in English Syntax.” 2006. Accessed from <>.

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IvyPanda. (2020, January 12). Modals in Different Varieties of English. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/modals-in-different-varieties-of-english/

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1. IvyPanda. "Modals in Different Varieties of English." January 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modals-in-different-varieties-of-english/.


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IvyPanda. "Modals in Different Varieties of English." January 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modals-in-different-varieties-of-english/.

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