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I am looking for language inspiration in terms of modal verbs. In particular, I was looking at the perfect tense in English, which uses the verb "to have" as a modal verb it sounds like.

It looks like other languages like Spanish use verb inflection (i.e. word modification) to achieve the same result.

The crux of my question is, why does there need to be a fancy handling of this particular sort of statement? Mandarin Chinese, for example, is said to only have 7 of these modal verbs:

  • "should"
  • "be able to"
  • "have permission to"
  • "dare"
  • "be willing to"
  • "must" or "ought to" and
  • "will" or "know how to"

"Dare", being in there, seems weird to me.

In English, how do you go from "to have" (possession), to "I had climbed the tree". I <possession> climb <past> the tree, it seems like there is no relation of the verb "have" to the use as a perfect tense modal verb.

If I were to try and break this perfect tense down a little bit, I would do something like: I <in past the following was prominent> climbed the tree.

Why is the list of modal verbs so limited? And why do they, in English at least, reuse an existing verb, giving it a totally different meaning?

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  • Possession + (past/passive) participle isn’t such a very unusual way to describe completion of an action or a perfective state. It’s also, with some differences, the origin of the transitive verb forms in some Inuit languages, though it’s no longer transparent; e.g., Greenlandic nerivoq ‘he eats/ate [intr.]’ vs nerivaa ‘he eats/ate it [tr.]’, where the latter historically originated as a participle with a possessive suffix, something like ‘it [is] his eaten thing > he has eaten it’, which was then reanalysed as a finite verb form (which later took on a more general aspectual meaning). Dec 15, 2021 at 19:08
  • You might refer to the auxiliary have as a modal, but that really isn't a helpful categorisation in English, as it doesn't behave like a modal in any way. 1. It has the whole range of forms that most verbs have (3rd person, non 3rd person, past, -ing participle, past participle, to-infinitive): modals have none of these, except in some cases a past. 2. It can be combined with any modal, whereas modals cannot be combined with each other in most dialects and AFAIK all standard Englishes. 3. It is followed only by the pp, whereas modals are followed only by the base form.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 15, 2021 at 22:59

1 Answer 1

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The crux of my question is, why does there need to be a fancy handling of this particular sort of statement?

Because English lost a whole lot of its verb inflection, so certain shades of meaning that could once have been expressed through morphology are now expressed through syntax instead.

Why is the list of modal verbs so limited?

Because they're function words rather than content words, and function words tend to be closed classes (you can't easily make more of them) and very limited in number.

And why do they, in English at least, reuse an existing verb, giving it a totally different meaning?

Historical reasons.

In English, how do you go from "to have" (possession), to "I had climbed the tree".

The "have"-perfect is a feature of the Standard Average European sprachbund, which means a whole lot of languages in the same area have this feature. It seems to have originated in Latin, persisted into the Romance languages, and spread from there into non-Romance languages like English and German.

Back in Latin, there was a single verb form (scripsī) used for two different tense-aspect combinations: past aoristic ("I wrote") and present perfective ("I have written"). This was somewhat ambiguous.

So over time, a new construction arose for the present perfective, using the verb habēre "have" with a participle. This probably arose through an evolution like:

  • (Litterās scriptās) habeō "I have (written letters)" (as in, I am holding letters, that have been written)
  • Litterās (scriptās habeō) "I (have written) letters" (as in, the letters have been written, whether or not I'm holding them right now)

This construction then became very prominent in Romance in order to distinguish the present perfective from the past aoristic, and spread from there to other languages in the area. English "have" is etymologically unrelated to habeō, but it looks very similar and has a similar meaning, so it was the obvious choice when borrowing the construction.

If I were to try and break this perfect tense down a little bit, I would do something like…

Look into "aspect" as a distinct thing from "tense". Perfective aspect ("have" in English) indicates that something was completed before the time you're talking about. If I say "I have eaten", I'm talking about the present state resulting from a past action of eating.

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    has is interesting because it has three essentially unrelated meanings, one content, two functional (perfect and modal), and yet it has the same inflected forms for each.
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 15, 2021 at 22:59
  • And in some dialects (such as mine) it does not take do-support even when used as a full verb.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 15, 2021 at 23:01
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    Plus, of course, have is not a modal verb. The OP appears to confuse auxiliary verbs with modal verbs, which are mostly auxiliaries in English, but not always. And also not all auxiliary verbs are modals. They're different categories.
    – jlawler
    Dec 16, 2021 at 1:31
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    @jlawler True, but in my experience the term "modal" (or rather "mood") can often subsume aspect in the same way "tense" can.
    – Draconis
    Dec 16, 2021 at 3:05
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    @Tristan Alkire and Rosen's book on Romance development, but more directly, we see this habeō-perfect commonly in later Latin.
    – Draconis
    Dec 16, 2021 at 16:40

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