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LINGUIST List 22.739

Sun Feb 13 2011

Sum: Semantics: Sometimes vs. Maybe

Editor for this issue: Danielle St. Jean <daniellelinguistlist.org>

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        1.     George Huttar , Semantics: Sometimes vs. Maybe

Message 1: Semantics: Sometimes vs. Maybe
Date: 11-Feb-2011
From: George Huttar <gukageorgegmail.com>
Subject: Semantics: Sometimes vs. Maybe
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Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue: 22.438

First, my thanks to the following for their quick and helpful replies to my
inquiry of (LINGUIST List 22-438. Tue Jan 25, 2011) about languages
that "use an expression meaning 'sometimes' to express possibility":
Erin Tavano
William J. Sullivan
Eduard Werner
Bruce Despain
Jose Luis Guijarro Morales
Sophia A. Malamud
Michael Swan
James Essegbey
Greg Shenaut

With regard to the distribution of the phenomenon, their responses
together suggest that it may be fairly widespread in Germanic and
Romance languages and languages that have been in contact with
such, but not necessarily elsewhere:

The use of 'sometimes' in the sense of 'maybe' is not found in Slavic


Eduard Werner reports that in some Saxon dialects of German, near
Leipzig, manchmal 'sometimes' is used for Standard German (SG)
vielleicht 'maybe' in a pragmatic context exemplified by Wissen Sie
manchmal... ‘do you perhaps know...?’, a source of amusement among
SG speakers.

One respondent called my attention to English 'it depends' as an
expression that serves for both senses (e.g., A: Can you grow corn
here? B: It depends.)


Spanish shows some overlap, via the noun vez, in "a veces"
‘sometimes’ and "talvez" ‘maybe’; the respondent suggests, "My
intuition is that in 'a veces' we are implying that this and that may
happen a certain set of times, while with 'talvez' we are pointing to the
fact that at one time this and that might happen (but not at other

"French 'des fois (que)', literally 'sometimes', is used to mean
something like 'supposing' or 'in the case that' or 'could be'".

Other: "in Ghanaian Pidgin English ... 'sometime' is used both for
'sometimes' and 'maybe'".

With regard to a rationale for the use of one expression with both
'sometimes' and 'maybe' senses, one respondent pointed out that
sometimes and maybe both function as existential quantifiers, differing
only in whether their domain of application is times/events or possible
worlds, respectively. (See de Swart, Henriëtte: 1991. Adverbs of
Quantification: A Generalized Quantifier Approach. Ph.D. Dissertation,
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen; and various works on modality by Angelika

Empirical data from English word association are provided by Erin
Tavano’s doctoral work. She reports, "According to the U[niversity of]
S[outh] F[lorida] free association norms, 'maybe' is a strong associate
of 'sometimes', in English. That is, when people hear 'sometimes' and
are asked to respond with the first word that comes to mind, they often
say 'maybe'. It is the second most common response, the first being
'always'". Link to the association data at:


And link to background on the USF database at:


Finally, the extension of meaning is not always from temporal to
possible: literature on the cartography of adverbials was mentioned,
according to which "in English the modal and temporal are ranked
opposite to the ranking of some other languages. Hence, where one
language can generalize on the temporal 'sometimes' and use the
same word for the modal meaning of both, another will generalize on
the modal adverb and use it for both".

Sometimes I’ll write an article on 'sometimes' and 'maybe' some day!

George Huttar

Editor's Note: A second supplement Summary was submitted by George Huttar
April 20, 2011 as LINGUIST Issue 22.1768 "Final Supplement - Semantics:
Sometimes vs. Maybe". It can be viewed here:


Linguistic Field(s): Semantics

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