Can we resurrect grammar features?

The following post on a listserv elicited this comment from me:
“The distinction between ’may’ and ’can’ in John’s example seems useful. If, as you say, it’s been dead for so long, why wouldn’t you want to resurrect it?”

Here’s my response:

Because grammar features are not introduced consciously into the language. No one said, let’s introduce a progressive passive into English, people just began using it. Linguists try to unravel the “motivations” for such change but they seem to be buried in three things (these are my interpretations of things I’ve read on the history of languages): the structure of the language e.g. English had a past and present passive so there was a “hole” in the paradigm where the passive progressive could have gone and it “got filled” (weasel passive here since we don’t know of any conscious, active effort to fill that hole); some “drift” of the language such as V2 languages where a verb always goes second in a normal declarative sentence and the whole structure of the language gradually shifts to accomodate this new “rule” (Spanish, for instance, as we speak seems to be shifting to the unusual typology of VSO i.e. a verb-first language like Tagalog); and finally my own pet candidate as the prime mover/motivator in language change: the …. and here Roget’s fails me – there’s no verbal form for “to make bland”. Spanish has ’blandear’, but it just means to soften. What I mean is that the expression loses force. An example from English would be as if we used “It’s Mary who knows the way” in place of “Mary knows the way” so much that it became the norm. We’d have to find another way to emphasize Mary.
In the many historical cases of attempts to consciously change languages (like to not split infinitives), it hasn’t worked. The Academies, the attempts to return English to its Anglo-Saxon roots, and so forth haven’t worked.
I’ve gone on so long b/c this is a basic principle of linguistics and I think it deserves as full a treatment as I can give it. Others may chime in and I look forward to seeing their posts.
New post and my response:

The distinctions of usage in John’s examples make sense to me without any further explanation. So I’m unclear what you mean. Does ’weaken’ work for your understanding of the Spanish, ’blandear’?


My post was directed strictly to the attempt to maintain an artificial distinction between can and may, so beloved of school teachers.
John wrote:
Student: “Can I go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “I don’t know, can you?”
Student: “May I go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “Yes, you may.”
It is not a viable distinction in modern day English. Of course, people like us understand its intent in John’s examples, but it means nothing to “normal” speakers of English. As far as I can tell, it has too little overlap with the Latin subjunctive to clarify anything to most people. Recall that you talked about resurrecting it and I was reacting to the likelihood of a grammar feature being resurrected in light of the history of such attempts.
Soften does work for blandear, but soften in pragmatics means something a little different from ’lose force’.
All in all, my post was really a throwaway and has little to do with the interesting question of the present subjunctive in Latin (unless you’re using English to clarify it, as Keith mentioned in his post: “The problem may be I trying to impose the use of “may” in English onto Latin”)
And, BTW, if my discussion of these issues irritates anyone, let me know and I’ll back off. It’s important to me but perhaps not to anyone else.

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