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Scholar from Poland discusses Athens visit to study Southern dialects

What follows is a conversation Classic City News recently had with Leszek Szymański, a linguistics professor from Poland and a Fulbright visiting scholar who is doing linguistics research at the University of Georgia:

 Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m a linguist, which means that I do research on language. You see, before a teacher can teach a foreign language to someone, and a translator can translate a text, we need someone else who earlier analyzed and described this language. This is a linguist’s job, so I analyze and describe how people actually express the intended meanings in language. I work as an associate professor at the University of Zielona Góra in Poland. I hold a habilitation degree, which is a post-doctoral degree that can be awarded in my country. I’m also a Board member of the Polish Linguistic Society. And, I’m a Fulbright visiting scholar at the University of Georgia in Athens now.

 

What are you doing in Athens?

- I’m collecting materials for my research on double modals. They are expressions with two modal verbs, like “might could”, “might should”, or “should oughta”, which people use, but books don’t talk about.

Athens is in the South where double modals are widely used. Secondly, it was in Athens where I heard a double modal for the first time in my life.

 I was here in 2014, at a linguistic conference at UGA. On one of the conference days we went to a pizza place in the downtown. We were having a conversation, and I remember that I was curious about the free bus transportation provided by the UGA. So, I asked a local colleague about it, and she explained that mostly students work as drivers. Then, I asked her about the requirements for a student to be a bus driver, and she replied: “Well, you must can drive a bus”. And of course, I was shocked to hear a grammatical pattern about which I had been taught that it doesn’t exist – two modal verbs: “must” and “can” together in a sentence. My surprise grew even bigger when I realized that it was used by a native speaker of English, a PhD candidate in linguistics at that time, so definitely a person who knows the language! After that, we had a small chat about double modals, but thanks to her, I learned a new thing. However, at that time I was engaged in another project, which culminated in a book, so I couldn’t digest this topic more. Oh, one copy of my book “Modal Auxiliaries and Aspect in Contemporary American English – A corpus-based Study” is available in the UGA Main Library.


I come from New York where it's not typical to hear people using double modals.

- Double modals are characteristic of the South. They came to America from northern Britain, Scotland and Ulster, together with the Scots and Ulster-Scots, who moved to the American South. So, we can say that double modals are part of the Scottish heritage here in the South.

 

What research activities are you doing in Athens?

-My primary activity is interviewing people about their language. Each interview consists of three parts. In the first one, I show modal words to the participant and ask them to tell me sentences with possible combinations of these words. The second part is a free interview. We talk here about free time, hobbies, interests, favorite sports, education and career experience, experience during the coronavirus pandemic, places to live or visit, and living in the South. So, nothing personal or intrusive. In this part, I'd love it if my interviewees use double modals! The third part is about judging sentences that I will show to the participant, and proposing questions and negations to them.

 There is absolutely no risk for the participants, as all the data will be anonymized, so no one’s identity can be revealed. The only risk is they will have fun.

So far I have interviewed 30 participants. I’m very grateful to each person who has agreed to take part in my interview! I must say that each interview was an exciting experience, and the feedback I’ve had is that the participants did enjoy them, too.

 

And how many interviews do you need?

Actually, I cannot answer this because there is no answer to it. I could say that the more people of various educational, occupational backgrounds, with various life experiences would be willing to participate, the more accurate the results should be. Each participant provides me with unique and extremely valuable information. There no correct or incorrect answers. It’s not grammar from books, but it’s people’s intuition as native speakers. In fact, every comment, suggestion or idea counts for my research.

 

So far, you’ve been talking about your research activities. What exactly do you want to investigate?

I’ve already said that I don’t judge whether someone speaks correctly or not. I investigate how people speak, not what a grammar book tells us, because these two are often different things. Therefore, I’m attempting to collect information about the double modals that people actually use. And then, I intend to investigate the nuances of their meanings plus certain contextual influences on the meanings, and how they influence the order of double modals. This can help explain, for example: why it is “might could” and not “could might”, or why sometimes people invert the second modal in a question, and both modals at another time, or else why “not” comes after the second modal, and not in any other place.

I believe my findings will contribute to enhancing knowledge about southern American English. They can also be used in teaching, especially at higher, academic levels of English, and definitely, they should be incorporated into university courses such as descriptive grammar of English. I hope that the findings will contribute also to revisions of already-existing grammar books that are used all over the world, because this is the language people actually speak. They can also be useful for translators, even in computer-assisted translation. Lastly, the research will contribute to the preservation of the culture of the South encoded in the language.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite interested potential participants to contact me (l.szymanski@in.uz.zgora.pl).

Essential criteria for participation include: being a native speaker of Southern American English, awareness of using double modals, currently residing in the South, preferably in rural areas (but not necessarily), having been raised in the South, and aged 21 or older.

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As a Southerner, I have never heard "must can" used. "Might should" or "might could" is more of an expression of free will with the Southerner reluctant to make a statement of absolution or tell someone what they need to do. It's a form of speech grown out of respectfulness and aloofness in my opinion. It's like saying "go find out for yourself the hard way". I think to link this to a speech pattern from its immigrant source is a stretch.

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