The present study was conducted in an attempt to investigate the alleged link between the rich epistemic scene in the English language and Anglo culture and history, hypothesized by Wierzbicka (2006), focusing on three epistemic adverbs (EA): probably, evidently and possibly. Adopting the view that language is constitutive of thoughts, Wierzbicka (2006) argued that English possesses an extraordinarily vast array of EAs compared to other European languages, which she attributed to the British Enlightenment and its subsequent impact on the English language. In order to prove Wierzbicka’s (2006) hypothesis with more extensive data, the current study searched the occurrences of probably, evidently and possibly on historical corpora Text Creation Partnership (TCP) and Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) over four centuries ranging from 1600s to 1990s. Using Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), a metalanguage consisting of simple, indefinable units of meaning called semantic primes, Wierzbicka (2006) explicated in detail the semantic characteristics of probably, evidently and possibly, which differed in the degrees of (un)certainty they convey. Hence, the historical pathways of these three adverbs were compared to see what cultural significance each has in the Anglo history and culture.
Since these adverbs have evolved from non-epistemic manner adverbs to epistemic disjuncts (Traugott 1989, 1995, Swan 1989, Swan & Breivik 2011), this qualitative change in their meaning and grammatical function was also addressed via their syntactic distributions. Hence, the present study searched the occurrences of these adverbs in three different positions: the general distributions, the sentence initial position, and the position after an intensifying degree adverb like very, more, and most.
Although the previous literature seemed to agree that the general category of EAs in English has expanded over the centuries, the present research produced rather disparate results between the adverbs, suggesting that more fine-grained distinctions between the meanings of different EAs would be needed for future studies. The general distributions showed that probably was the only one that increased most consistently and rapidly, especially from the late eighteenth century. Evidently, although having risen up till the nineteenth century, dropped significantly in the past century to become the least commonly used one.
While all three adverbs’ frequencies in the sentence-initial position demonstrated a more consistent increase, it was evidently that underwent the most rapid increase, particularly in the nineteenth century, so that by the twentieth century it has become the most dominant one in this position. In contrast to their frequencies in the initial position, the adverbs’ tendency to be modified after very, more, and most has dropped significantly from the seventeenth century onward, suggesting that all three adverbs have increasingly become grammaticalized into epistemic SA over the years.
On the whole, the data from the present studay seems to support Wierzbicka’s (2006) hypothesis about the relationship between Anglo history and the wealth of EAs in English, in that the more confident adverb evidently came to diminish in popularity over the years and was relatively late to join the epistemic SA class compared to the other mid- to low- probability adverbs probably and possibly, as reflected in their syntactic distributions.