The English future markers

The grammaticalization of will, shall and be going to to English future markers

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

12 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. The English future tense

2. The development of the English future tense
2.1. Etymology
2.2. Grammaticalization
The rise of will and shall to English future markers
The going to-future

3. Conclusion

1. The English future tense

As a matter of fact, natural languages change over time (cf. Aitchison 2003: 3). Thus, grammars are only valid for a certain period in time, they provide synchron­ic insight into the system of a certain language at a certain time. To study lan­guage change, a historical perspective is needed. One major part of change any language undergoes, is grammaticalization1. In this paper, the grammaticalization of the English future tense markers will be examined diachronically, a process Hopper and Traugott (2003: 2) describe as the “investigation of the sources of grammatical forms and the typical steps of change they undergo”. That is, a study of the change of certain lexical items in Old English to grammatical items in Present-day English.

As all Germanic languages, English is lacking an inflexional future tense (cf. Brunner 1984: 288). In fact, according to Leisi and Mair, there is no 'pure' form besides four possible means of expressing the future: the “actual” (1999: 128) future form with will and shall, the future progressive form (will + be + -ing), the present progressive form (be + -ing) and the circumscription with be going to. A present form with future meaning is still being tolerated in English, though only in certain contexts as will be elaborated on later in this paper (cf. Leisi & Mair 1999: 128).

The grammaticalization of will and shall, and be going to from Old English verbs of volition, obligation and movement to Present-day English future auxiliaries will be the focus of this paper. According to Aitchison, this process is a common one in languages around the world: “Verbs of volition [...] typically become future markers” (Aitchison 2003: 114). Special attention will be devoted to the role of be going to which -as of today- has taken up an important position in spoken language (cf. Faiß 1989: 306). After a quick glance at the etymological roots of these words, their clines of grammaticalization will be outlined and contrasted to each other.

As the process of grammaticalization of will, shall, and going to to future markers is seen as finished throughout literature2, the current development of their 'successors' 'll and gonna continues to modify the system of future tense in the English language.

2. The development of the English future tense

2.1. Etymology

The etymological roots of Present-day English will are twofold: the full verb is derived from Old English willian (cf. Faiß 1989: 291), whereas the auxiliary is based upon the Old English defective -mi verb willan, originally an athematic optative that assumed indicative meaning (cf. Latin velím, Pinsker 1974: 154), and Modern English wille(n) (cf. Faiß 1989: 291). The past tense form would originated in Old English walde, Middle English wölde (cf. Brunner 1984: 273). The negated clitic won't is first observed in the 17th century, from 16th century wonnot (< wol not, cf. Faiß 1989: 291).

According to Faiß Present-day English shall originates from the Old English preterite-present verb sceal (plural: sculon), since the 12th century it has been used pluralistic, substituting pluralistic forms for circa the next 300 years (Ibid.). The past tense form should derives from Modern English schölde (cf. Brunner 1984: 273). Its clitic negation shan't (since 17th century) is more or less extinct in Present-day English (cf. Faiß 1989: 291).

Originating in the middle of the 16th century the postive clitic form, fixed as <'ll> in the 17th century, was in standard language restricted to will; in dialects, though, also shall could be reduced to that shortened form. Generally, the dialectal clitic 'll could not strictly be related to either will or shall (cf. Faiß 1989: 291), or as Leisi and Mair -referring to 'll in spoken language of Present-day English- put it: “[es] wird deutlich, daß man bei der Unterscheidung zwischen will und shall die Pedanterie nicht zu weit treiben sollte” (Leisi & Mair 1999: 167). Ylva Berglund goes even further. Referring to clauses with pronouns as subjects, she relates 'll more to going to/gonna than to will and concludes:

This may suggest that the expression [ 'll] is not exclusively a spoken or speech-like variant of will but that there are some areas where the two differ and the two expressions can be seen as independent variants. (Berglund2005: 164)

The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of going to as a future marker dates back to 1482 (“Thys onhappy sowle..was goyng to be broughte into helle for the synne and onleful lustys of her body.”, Oxford English Dictionary). This quotation is generally used as the first clear evidence of the going to-future. An earlier quotation from 1438 is being rejected by scholars due to its ambivalence: in it, going to could be read as either a future marker or a verb of motion (Brunner 2006: 96).

According to Berglund's corpus research, still going to is not as frequent as will (cf. Berglund 2005: 166), but in addition to the syntactic change, going to has undergone a change in morphology since the early 20th century as well: the -today still informal- variant gonna3 is most probably on its way to become the “statistically normal way of coding future time” (Mair 2006: 99).

2.2. Grammaticalization

The rise of will and shall to English future markers

Present tense (be it indicative or optative) was generally employed as a means to refer to the future in Old English (cf. Brunner 1984: 288). That futurist present was used until the 18th century and did not require any temporal clauses, adverbials or a certain context to be applicated (as it does today, Ibid.). Future forms in Latin sources were thus translated in Old English using the present tense ('opera quae ego facio et ipse faciet' became he wyrcô pä weore pe ic wyrce, cf. Brunner 1984: 288). Few remainders are still to be found in Present-day English, as in Classes begin on September 15th or How long do you stay here? (Brunner 1984: 289). According to Leisi and Mair (1999: 128), this way of expressing the future in Present-day English is only possible in certain cases. Conjunctions, for example, permit this use (when, as soon as, until, and so on) - but the smallest


1 “Grammaticalization is the cross-componential change par excellence, involving as it does developments in the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics” (McMahon 1994: 161)

2 for example, will: cf. Heine 2003: 585 and going to: cf. Mair 2006: 96, but cf. Fischer 2006: 133

3 Apart from social based variation in frequency, the fact “[that] going to and gonna are indeed variant forms of one expression is obvious” (Berglund 2005: 166).

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The English future markers
The grammaticalization of will, shall and be going to to English future markers
University of Bamberg  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Language Change
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language change, will, going to, gonna, shall, future, tense, grammaticalization
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Magister Artium Jens Heuser (Author), 2009, The English future markers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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