Diachronic changes in modality in South African English

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Peer-Reviewed Research
  • SDG 4
  • Abstract:

    In this paper we aim to contribute to both the synchronic and diachronic description of the grammar of South African English (SAfE) in its written register. In the handful of previous studies on the variety’s grammar (e.g. Bowerman 2004b) the traditional method of pointing out peculiarities has restricted its research potential to a great extent, whereas we now endeavour to move in the opposite direction of full description in the hope of creating a comparative platform with other Southern Hemisphere Englishes (SHEs). A historical corpus of written SAfE is used to trace the path of modality from the 19th to the late 20th century as preserved in letters, newspapers and fictional writing. The findings are, firstly, that modals decline only in the second half of the 20th century, after remaining relatively stable throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century, and, secondly, that semi-modals do not increase in usage to the same extent as observed for other varieties of English. These patterns are attributed to a number of forces: trade-off relations between different modals to move away from excessive politeness to more direct forms, and developments within particular registers that favoured or disfavoured the use of specific modal