“I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

On Sunday, I naturally found myself thinking about how scary a mummy actually is, as a horror character. I think I’m with Homer Simpson on this one:

Ooh, pretty creepy. Still, I’d rather have him chasing me than the Wolfman.

Even more naturally enough, for me anyway, this in turn got me thinking about how we talk about being afraid in English. It’s quite easy to translate adjectives like afraid, scared and frightened into other languages because fear is such a primal feeling that we tend to think of it in the same way across languages. Terror and horror might be more complex, but the basic sense of fear is one we all recognise. A sentence like…

I’m afraid of spiders.

… isn’t hard to translate, or for a learner of English to understand. But what about this famous line from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. 

Imagine you’re an English teacher and you have to explain a) what I’m afraid means in this case, and b), why we specifically use I’m afraid instead of other phrases. The first task’s not too bad: you could just say it means I’m sorry, and that’d be good enough. But what about explaining why we use it?

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