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What’s A Double Modal? It Could Be Key To Sounding Like A Texan.

A "Welcome to Texas" highway sign
ErgoSum88/Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

What’s a double modal and how do they make Texas language more nuanced? That’s the question at the heart of this month’s Texan Translation.

Lars Hinrichs is a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the Texas English Linguistics Lab. He told Texas Standard a double modal occurs when two verbs are used together to create a “refined” meaning.

“Might could – I think that’s the most frequently used one,’ Hinrichs said.

“Should oughtta” is another popular double modal.

Hinrichs says double modals are heard throughout the South.

“But of course, in Texas, double modals are a little better than in the rest of the South.”

Double modals came to the Lone Star State because Texas was partially settled by people from the deep South and Appalachia, who in turn came to the U.S. from Ireland and Scotland, where he says the construction probably began.

Hinrichs said standard English includes only a few modals. The double variety gives a more nuanced set of meanings.

“It’s a finer use of language,” Hinrichs said.

The downside is that language that provides so many double modals can be harder to learn and understand.

“More words come with more rules,” Hinrichs said. “Whenever you have language variation, there’s always a tradeoff between transparency and economy,”

Michael Marks | Texas Standard
Shelly Brisbin | Texas Standard