Characteristics of ability-signifying verbs in earlier English and other languages: A synchronic and diachronic investigation

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Abstract

In Old English magan means not only ‘be (generally) able to’ but also ‘be possible’ and ‘be permitted to’. In contrast cunnan does not have any other meanings than ‘know (how to)’, ‘be mentally/intellectually able to’. This phenomenon can be observed with respect to similar pairs in other languages, such as French pouvoir and savoir. It thus seems that there is a cross-linguistic tendency whereby verbs which signify general ability have or develop other modal meanings such as possibility and permission, whereas those which signify mental/intellectual ability do not. This paper gives an account of this tendency by assigning appropriate formal semantic structures to the two types of ability-signifying verbs. The issue of why, although English CAN once signified mental/intellectual ability, it has today developed possibility and permission meanings will also be pursued, following the line of argument in my previous paper (1990).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)361-396
Number of pages36
JournalLinguistics
Volume29
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1991

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

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