It is widely known that the meanings of English CAN and MAY have changed from ‘to know (how to)’ to ‘to be able to’, ‘to be possible’, etc., and from ‘to have power (to)’ or ‘to be able to’ to ‘to be allowed to’, ‘to be possible’, etc. The main concern of this paper is to investigate why CAN and MA Y have undergone such semantic changes and what kind of linguistic mechanisms are involved. In order to approach this problem, this paper analyzes corresponding cases in other Germanic languages and in the Romance languages. These analyses reveal that the semantic changes of CAN and MAY are due to a peculiarly Germanic distribution of the relevant items in the vocabulary, and that these changes can be understood in terms of two mechanisms of semantic change: differentiation and implication. Evidence from Russian is also presented to endorse the validity of this approach.
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