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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics

Abstract

While the double modal (e.g., I might could go to the store) is a well know feature of Southern United States English, most previous studies have focused mainly on explaining the double modal’s syntactic structure. With this focus on syntax these studies generally have used small and/or socially homogeneous samples; thus there we have little information about what social constraints might exist on double modal usage.

Because the double modal is a relatively infrequently occurring syntactic form that does not alternate with another easily identifiable form, sociolinguistic methods of counting occurrences and non-occurrences in spontaneous speech are not adequate. In light of this, the present study utilized syntactic acceptability judgments to examine the effect of social factors on double modal acceptance in Northeast Tennessee.

Age, gender, and educational level were found to significantly constrain respondents’ acceptance of double modal sentences. Age was the strongest predictor of acceptance with the youngest respondents the most accepting of double modal forms, followed by the oldest, and then the middle aged suggestive of possible age grading. Furthermore, men and respondents with less education were more likely to accept double modals than were women and respondents with more education; however, the gender and education effects hold only for the middle and old age groups. Thus, the young respondents are the most accepting and the most homogeneous group. This distribution supports a hypothesis that double modals are avoided by those who most value unmarked forms: adults in the prime years for employment. Planned future work including language attitude data will be beneficial in fully understanding the social distribution and perception of double modals.

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