Response to the May I ~ Can I nonsense

Debra wrote:

I realize that “may I?” (asking permission) has been replaced in common student speech with “can I?”: Can I sharpen my pencil? Can I go to the bathroom?
Has Spanish also given up the battle and replaced “me permite” with “puedo”? Even posters are using “puedo” when asking permission. I thought poder was can as in “to be able”, as in ability to do something.
Is anyone still fighting that battle?
—– My response:
I hope this clarifies at least the English part of the question.
From An Historical Study of English: Function, Form, and Change, by Jeremy Smith, Routledge, 1996.
pp. 152-153 [British spellings] “….. the usual pattern is to express subjunctivity through the use of the auxiliary verbs may and might.
It seems fairly clear that the shift from Old to Present-Say English usage relates to the obscuration of unstressed syllables; since inflectional endings were no longer effective in signalling subjunctivity, other means had to be found for the purpose. It so happened that other Old English verb, magan, overlapped semantically with the subjunctive mood. The usual translation offered for Old English magan is ‘can’, ‘could’. Present-Day English ‘can’ includes a semantic component indicating possibility, potentiality, hypothesis etc., and this plainly overlaps with the range of meanings covered by the formal subjunctive. When the formal subjunctive became indistinguishable from the indicative, it is therefore not surprising that another verb, whose variational space overlapped with it, should have taken over its functions.
Subsequent to the grammaticalisation of magan, the semantic slot it had previously occupied was taken over by another verb which itself overlapped with it: ‘cunnan’ ‘to be able’, ‘to know how to’. The shift in meaningof these verbs can therefore be seen as a ‘chain-reaction’, the result of an initial inflectional merger. The whole process, which might be termed the Modal Shift, is expressed in diagrammatic form in Figure 7.5. The potentiality for the Shift was only activated, and thus became a grammatical change, when the merger of inflectional endings had taken place.
The changes in the use of such verbs, in both ‘modal’ and ‘premodal’ usage, has been the subject of a study by D. Lightfoot (1979) which, although couched in generative terms, is in its essentials highly traditional and along the lines suggested here. Lightfoot shows that the development of ‘may’ and ‘might’ to their Present-Day English use was completed quite suddenly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; such ‘sudden’ completions of linguistic changes are fully explicable within the ‘snowball’ model which has been developed here. This shift must have been encouraged, moreover, by a formal factor: magan was no prototypcial verb, being a member of the so-called ‘preterite-present’ verb-set. This difference suggests that, like other irregular verbs, magan was already on its way to becoming what it has
ultimately become, viz. a grammatical auxiliary rather than a lexical verb;
this, perhaps, is to be expected, given that magan at least in part
overlapped semantically with a grammatical rather than another lexical item.
Hints of this shift in usage appear even in Late Old English; B. Mitchell notes ‘the use of magan in the Northumbrain Gospels as an auxiliary in the traanslation of the Latin subjunctive, e.g. Matt. (Li) 12.14, huu hine maehtes to lose gedoa, Latin quomodo eum perderent. It may be significant that this usage is recorded earliest in the North of England, where inflectional innovation is most advanced.”
Now you have to picutre 4 overlapping circles, like 2 Venn diagrams hooked into 4. Starting with the one on the right, we have “ “know how to’ etc.”; to the left, we have ‘can’ and ‘could’ with arrows under each pointing to the left; to its left is a circle with ‘may’ and ‘might’ with arrows under them pointing to the left; and finally we have a circle with ‘formal’ and ‘subjunctive’ with arrows under them pointing to the left………. if that makes sense. The diagram is labeled Figure 7.5 Changes in the formal expression of the subjunctive mood (simplified diagram) [!!]
A side note: it looks to me like there is a typo in the Old English word, “gedoa”. I think it should be “gedon”, although I don’t know enough to figure out how “how him may to destroy done” makes sense. The Lain clearly means “how they might destroy him” (King James translation). But, what was interesting was I tried to find the passage, Matt. 12.14, in Old English. Fist I looked on the internet, then among my own books. What I discovered is that that passage, and lots of passages, were never translated into OE. It makes sense since people who could read read Latin. Apparently Bright did a translation and some group is looking to put it up, but Bright was a 19th c. scholar of OE, not an Old Englishman. Interesting.
The upshot is, only a few school teachers continue to insist on this non-existent distinction, but since you’ve been doing it for 400-500 years, we must admit, you are a hardy lot.

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