LINGUIST List 8.229

Tue Feb 18 1997

Disc: The English Future

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. John Atkinson, Re: 8.204, Disc: The English Future
  2. Ivan BIRKS, The English Future

Message 1: Re: 8.204, Disc: The English Future

Date: Wed, 12 Feb 97 12:12:29 +1100
From: John Atkinson <>
Subject: Re: 8.204, Disc: The English Future

Rob Peterson wrote:

>John Atkinson wrote:
>>>P.S. what does "shall" mean? -- Benji
>>Nothing. It doesn't exist in my dialect.

>But "shall" surely has a distinct meaning and existence in questions that
>are offers, e.g.
>Shall we get a drink? (ie I will get us one if you want one - it is
>interesting that we can use "will" in a similar sense in the affirmative
>but not the interrogative...)

I would say "How about we get a drink?" for this sort of meaning. I 
might say "will", but you're right of course, that's ambiguous (to me) 
- it also, probably more often, means: "Will they give us a drink?" 
or: "Is there any water in the next creek?"

>Will we get a drink? (ie what did they say about giving us one?)

And Benji wrote:

>Tilt! If it doesn't exist in YOUR dialect, that doesn't mean it doesn't
>mean anything, even to you. We all have some familiarity with other
>dialects -- and televangelists. "As ye reap..." (Don't you like
>Shakespeare? "By faith I shall, Kate, nay, I will!")

OK, I was being a bit flippant. People use "shall" to me quite often
and I usually have no trouble giving it a meaning. But exactly what
that meaning is depends on who they are and what I know of the variety
of English they speak. If Rob said "Shall we get a drink?" I'd
understand it because a good many Australians and New Zealanders
(among others) do use this form. When my friend Sally says "I shall"
I understand that she means it as future -- I know she comes from a
part of England where "shall" is standard for first person future.
When our exchange student Lars says "he shall" I understand that he
means it as future -- I have a smattering of Norwegian and I suspect
he's using it the same way as he would in his native language. (Yes,
I know, the use of "sjall" and "will" is about as messy in the
Scandinavian languages as it is in English, but in Norway at least
"sjall" seems to be winning (?).) And if I was a Shakespeare buff,
I'd probably understand exactly what "I shall, nay, I will!" meant as
soon as I heard it. (As it is, I have to sit down and think about it
a bit, as I would with any other language I'm not really used to

And, of course, "shall" does have a meaning "in my dialect". It means
I'm trying to put on a pommie accent. I would usually pronounce it
"shell" in this case though . . .

>David Harris writes:
>> an amateur
>>linguist, I find all such arguments nit-picky and non-productive.

As another amateur linguist, I won't disagree there. But picking nits
is an important social bonding mechanism for most species of primates.

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Message 2: The English Future

Date: Wed, 12 Feb 1997 19:50:41 +0100
From: Ivan BIRKS <>
Subject: The English Future

Elena Koutsomitopoulou wrote

>For sure a cross linguistic study would help more into clarifying this
>subject. It would be interesting to see how future behaves into several
>languages and then try to draw any conclusions.

Let's take the case of Italian. The future tense is composed of a
root plus suffixes based on the verb HAVE (Lat. habeo).

The notion of futurity is however often expressed using the present.
This is unexceptional, and unsurprising since contextual parameters
make this possible.

eg. Parto! (I'm leaving)

Partiro', the future form, would convey a different meaning... (Yes,
yes, I will leave- but I'm in no hurry OR I know what I'll do- I'll

What is slightly more surprising is the fact that the future in
Italian is often used in modal, or even concessive contexts.

e.g. Dov'e' Giovanni? (Where is John?)
 Bo' Sara' a scuola. (I don't know...He'll be/ must be at school)

e.g. Sarai' pure ricco, ma non voglio i tuoi regali. (You may (well)
be rich, but I don't want your presents)

Is it possible that it is the notion of future 'tense' which is
bizarre, rather than the way English deals with futurity?

Ivan Birks

Ivan Birks
Institut du Monde Anglophone,
Paris III-Censier, 13, rue Santeuil,
75321 Paris cedex 05 FRANCE
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