Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Might be going to V"

Overheard an interesting sentence yesterday (said out loud to a cat about to go outside):
Hold on a minute, buddy, it might be gonna rain.
Took me a second to realize that this was suspiciously like a double modal, widespread in the South. That is, you've got a modal plus an auxiliary plus a main verb here. The Dictionary of American Regional English (under may B6) talks about these things as "multiple modals" or "non-std multiple auxiliaries", with examples like:
  • I might could enjoy myself.
  • You might better keep out.
  • He may didn't want to come.
A big set of examples is in Mishoe & Montgomery 1994 — in American Speech — including how and where they occur with negatives, in interrogatives and so on. Anyway, the speaker was a Southerner, in fact a native user of these creatures, but one who no longer uses double modals regularly.

Given how tremendously stigmatized these constructions are in areas where they're known, not just regionally but also socially (marked as lower class, uneducated, etc.), it's hardly a surprise that an educated speaker working in the professional job up here would lose them. There may be a communicative reason too: When I've talked about these constructions to Wisconsinites, sometimes people say they wouldn't know how to interpret such things if they heard them. (I assume that means interpret pragmatically — they seem unlikely to trigger tragic miscommunication.)

But really, the sentence at the start of this post is more like quasi-modal used to (so some people call it), as in:
You used to could buy gas cheap.
The used to could construction strikes the speaker as less salient, and might be gonna + V as off the radar — not something he'd think twice about using and something he thinks he uses often. Now, my judgments are so fried on this kind of point that I just asked a Wisconsinite about them. Her response was that these are all equally "alien", so weird that they can't count as 'stigmatized' for her. But all equally weird.

If this is right, the speaker is suppressing a set of forms as stigmatized, but doesn't get the generalization about what the full set is. So, I'm wondering if he's ended up using some of the less common parts of it while losing only the real stereotypical parts.

More generally, I wonder if there's work on this particular construction, the fringes beyond double modals?

Image from here, the website of the band Might Could.

UPDATE, November 20: See this new post on the topic.

7 comments:

whitney said...

I'm a (former) Southerner, and also a native user of "those creatures". I think you're probably right about reason for the speaker not losing that particular construction despite having lost all the others. I've also (mostly, except when I get excited and start talking too fast) filtered out most of the really obvious double modals like "might could" after getting really baffled/scathing looks from people after we moved from the South up to MN when I was a kid, but I know for a fact that I say "might be gonna X" all the time, as well as "might ought to X". I really ought to have the right generalization about the set I should be avoiding, being trained as a linguist and all, but somehow neither of those got caught up with the rest of the double modals.

(also, hello! I've been lurking for awhile here but this is my first time commenting.)

Skullturf Q. Beavispants said...

For what it's worth, I am from Western Canada, and thus don't say "might could" or "used to could". Interestingly, though, I see nothing remarkable about "It might be going to rain", but I would never condense that to "It might be gonna rain", although I have no problem with contracting "going to" to "gonna" elsewhere in casual speech.

Perhaps part of the reason is that "going" leads a double life: it can appear as part of the modal "going to" in front of another verb, but it can also be the last verb of the sentence, as in "I might be going to the store."

Jangari said...

I too have no problem with it might be going to rain and I similarly have no problem with it might be gonna rain. All other double modals however, are strictly disallowed in my dialect. Any combination of modals, such as might could, may didn't or used to could, is completely ungrammatical for me. I'd only be able to use the main-verb equivalents with these, so might be able to, may not have and used to be able to.

The difference with might be gonna is that it can be parsed (at least by me) as a modal + main verb construction. Syntactically, gonna (or more accurately (to be gonna) is a main (phrasal) verb in my dialect; it's ungrammatical if the be isn't correctly inflected for all the normal inflectional requirements.

So, I think Skullturf Q. Beavispants (excellent name, by the way) is on the right track when he points out that be going to is able to be the last verb in the sentence, which I understand to mean 'main verb'.

Except I can replace be going to with be gonna wherever I like.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I too can say "might be gonna" as well as "might be going to" (the latter always has 'to' as a preposition, not an infinitive marker). "Gonna" isn't a modal for me, I suspect, but at best a semi-modal.

However, I should point out that I am from Tennessee and double modals are no problem for me, though I don't have free combination of them, of course ("might could", sure; "could might", okay; "might must" absolutely not, though "might hafta" is okay). But I don't think I'd say "might will" ... "maybe will".

Joe said...

Well, for some odd reason, the speaker you describe fits my own speech. I won't even speculate about the syntactic analysis of this stuff

Tim said...

Hi. I'm Tim, from the band Might Could. Thanks for referring to us.

Our band name definitely is Southern in origin. My bandmate is from South Carolina, and he introduced the double modal to the rest of us. It's hard to come up with a band name in this day and age, so we decided to give that one a whirl.

It's certainly a name that not everybody gets. Most non-Southerners we meet have no idea why we'd use a phrase that doesn't make sense to them as a band name.

Mr. Verb said...

Excellent, thanks. Of course, just for the reasons you give, it's a great band name.