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Literally: The misunderstood intensifier

A case study of semantic change

Kendra Calhoun

on 4 December 2012

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Transcript of Literally: The misunderstood intensifier

The misunderstood intensifier What's all the noise about 'literally'? Semantic change is often viewed as a degradation of the English language. Today's most prevalent form of literally contradicts its most well-known meaning, fueling this belief. A careful investigation of the evolution of 'literally' into its current form reveals that its process of change is not novel, but an example of the systematic nature of language change over time My research questions: What constitutes an 'intensifier'? How exactly is 'literally' used today? Has it changed following the pattern of other intensifiers? Has semantic change historically been systematic, and if so, in what ways? In what ways do intensifiers undergo semantic change? Regulating factors in semantic change: Grammaticalization WORD CHARCTERISTICS SPEAKER CHARACTERISTICS The process by which a lexical item gradually changes to perform a grammatical function Has semantic
change historically been systematic? YES. Landsbergen et.al. (2010)
The likelihood of a word undergoing semantic change depends on: 1. General vs. specific meaning
2. Frequency of use
3. Level of mutation word allows Traugott and Dasher (2002) Haspelmath (1999) A speaker's "tendency to seek signal simplicity" determines word's structural path 1. A speaker desires and creates an innovate way of expressing idea using a lexical item
2. Other speakers desire same thing and adopt usage
3. New form is habituated through widespread usage, original meaning is lost 'Intensifier' is one category of words that result from grammaticalization. But what exactly is an 'intensifier'? Different names for the same thing... Quirk et al (1985) INTENSIFIER: "broadly concerned with the semantic category of degree"; "indicates a point on an abstractly conceived intensity scale" EMPHASIZER: has a "reinforcing effect on the truth value of the clause or part of the clause to which" it applies Partington (1993) INTENSIFIERS:
1. modify verbs and/or submodify adjectives
2. have restrictions on how they collocate with submodifiable items
3. can be created simply by using an adverb in a submodifying position (and others interpreting it as an intensifier) Lorenz (2002) MODAL ADVERB INTENSIFIERS: "express the extent to which a speaker is willing to attest to the truth of a proposition" How would 'literally' operate as an intensifier? According to modern linguists, how does 'literally' operate as an intensifier? That sounds a lot like what 'literally' does... Kacmarova (2011) 'Literally' has the power to change the truth value of a sentence through emphasis
Modifier in adjective, noun, verb, and prepositional phrases, but not adverb phrases or dependent clauses It seems like literally the whole world is using it incorrectly... 'Literally' as in intensifier Israel (2002) Modern use of 'literally' may indicate that the speaker:
(1) considers what he's saying especially remarkable
(2) is committed to the strongest possible interpretation of his words
(3) considers these words the best way of expressing what he has to say, especially in a peculiar situation
It can modify figurative expressions because it was a "small step or no step at all" from marking seriousness of a literal sentence to seriousness of a figurative one How do intensifiers
specifically undergo
semantic change? In other words—
What characterisitc indicate an intensifer has been or is in the process of being grammaticalized? Indicators of grammaticalization for an intensifier Summarized from Lorenz (2002) and Ito & Tagliamonte (2003):
very, really, well, right (1) spoken most often
by younger speakers

(2) use decreases with
formality of setting

(3) younger speakers are
more likely to use it
to grade adjectives (4) begins to appear more
frequently with predicate
than attributive adjectives

(5) retains some of its
(original) lexical meaning

(6) collocates with a small set
of specific lexical items (7) collocates with a broad range of types of lexical items

(8) expands to usage in a wider range of contexts, then increases in overall frequency A word is being grammaticalized if... Early in
process Late in
grammaticalization Once fully grammaticalized Original lexical
meaning is lost
(no longer pragmatically salient) Possibly 100s of
years later: Now for the data: How was 'literally' originally used?
(i.e. what is its original lexical meaning?)

How is 'literally' used today? Oxford English Dictionary
Informal conversation Meanings of 'literally' through the years
(OED) (a) "in a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc." c.1429 (b) "to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense, usually to add emphasis" c. 1670 "He had the singular fate of dying literally of hunger" "They interprete literally, which the doctors did write figuratively" (c) colloq. Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolic expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense c. 1769 "He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies" Perhaps not as modern as you thought? Today's most popular form of 'literally' has actually been around for nearly 250 years; it's just become the most popular in recent years How is this most popular form used? To denote a hyperbole or metaphor (40%) & reflect the speaker's commitment to the strongest possible interpretation of their words
(Israel, 2002) @holyh00ker: Black Friday is literally like the Hunger Games. THOSE JEANS ARE HALF OFF?! *runs and does a flip over a table* THEY’RE ALL MINE!

Chris Traeger (“Parks and Recreation”): and I of course accepted immediately because Pawnee is literally the greatest town in the country Does it operate as an intensifier? Yes! reinforces the effect of the truth value of the part of the clause to which it applies (Quirk, 1985) or affirms the truth value of the sentence through emphasis (Kacmarova, 2011) @RockMeNiallerJH: he’s just actually…wow. he’s a wonderful person. Just watch the video, he is literally the NICEST PERSON EVER.

@VodkaVendettas: I’m literally shocked that I survived this weekend Where is 'literally' on the grammaticalization timeline? (4) collocates more with predicate adjectives than attributive adjectives 100% of instances in which it modified an adjective phrase, the adjective was predicate (8) collocates with a (relatively) broad range of lexical items and now that it has (9) expanded to these different domains it is gradually increasing in frequency in each one Where is 'literally' on the grammaticalization timeline? 'Literally appears to be in process of grammaticalization but is far from completing the process, as (5) its original lexical meaning is still in use @SNCKPCK: just rolled out of bed, literally rolled and fell onto the ground b/c i can

“People must consider how important our infrastructure is. It literally connects our country and keeps it running.”

“It literally took 3 1/2 hours to get a 3 1/2 minute interview.” REGARDLESS 'literally' is undergoing the same semantic change process as other well-accepted intensifiers that began as adverbs with a lexical function (e.g. 'really' and 'very') Modern use of 'literally' is not the result of ignorance, disregard for "proper" English, or laziness but
the result of speakers' desire for expressiveness & innovation and regular patterns of linguistic change So what ? Types of phrases modified by 'literally' Prepositional “It was awesome to know that this is my senior day, and my entire team is literally behind me right now.” Adjective @rqry: listening to music whilst on twitter and not tweeting the lyrics is literally impossible Noun Verb @davidxsharpe: Lana Del Ray is literally the most annoying person on the planet "If Georgia goes to the national championship I’m literally going to die." REFERENCES Biscetti, Stefania. "The Diachronic Development of the Intensifier Bloody: A Case Study in Historical Pragmatics." English Historical Linguistics 2006, Volume II: Lexical and Semantic Change. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2006. 53-74. Print.
Haspelmath, Martin. "Why Is Grammaticalization Irreversible?" Linguisitcs 37.6 (1999): 1043-1068. Print.
Israel, Michael. "Literally Speaking." Journal of Pragmatics 34 (2002): 423-32. Print.
Ito, Rika and Sali Tagliamonte. "Well Weird, Right Dodgy, Very Strange, Really Cool: Layering and Recycling in English Intensifiers." Language in Society 32 (2003): 257-79. Print.
Kamárová, Alena. "Modality — A Framework for Conveying Judgments." SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics 8.1 (2011): 22-56. SKASE. Slovak Association for the Study of English, 23 June 2011. Web.
Landsbergen, Frank, Robert Lachlan, Carel Ten Cate, and Arie Verhagen. "A Cultural Evolutionary Model of Patterns in Semantic Change." Linguistics 48.2 (2010): 363-90. Print.
"literally, adv.". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. 23 November 2012 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/109061?redirectedFrom=literally&>
Lorenz, Gunter. "Really Worthwhile or Not Really Significant?: A Corpus-based Approach to the Delexicalization and Grammaticalization of Intensifiers in Modern English." New Reflections on Grammaticalization. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2002. 143-61. Print. Typological Studies in Language.
Partington, Alan. "Corpus Evidence of Language - The Case of the Intensifier." Text and Technology: In Honour of John Sinclair. Philadelhpia: John Benjamins, 1993. 177-92. Print.Traugott, Elizabeth Closs., and Richard B. Dasher. Regularity in Semantic Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.
Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. New York: Longman, 1985. Print. Using case study to support historical data that language change is systematic and rule-governed Adding to limited body of linguistic research about modern use of 'literally' Challenging critics' belief that language change is the
result/evidence of language degradation:
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