LINGUIST List 7.348

Tue Mar 5 1996

Sum: "Truth"-intensifers

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Jan K Lindstrom, jklindstwaltari.Helsinki.FI

Message 1: jklindstwaltari.Helsinki.FI

Date: Tue, 05 Mar 1996 10:35:49 +0200
From: Jan K Lindstrom <jklindstwaltari.Helsinki.FI>
Subject: jklindstwaltari.Helsinki.FI

Sum: "Truth"-intensifers

1. Introduction

A couple of weeks ago I posted a query concerning intensifier
expressions that are related to meanings like 'true' or 'real'. The
core of the message ran as follows:

"I am studying intensification phenomena in Swedish, mostly from the
point of lexical reiteration but also more generally. Right now I
would simply like to know of languages where an intensifying adverbial
or grade adverbial is homonymous or has developed from an expression
conveying that something is 'true' or 'real' or, indeed, 'a
fact'. Examples from Swedish and English are:

(i) verkligt/faktiskt liten
 real/really small

(ii) riktigt liten
 truly small"

I received a dozen replies with examples from ten different
languages. The interest was perhaps a bit weaker than expected but,
luckily, all the comments I got were adequate and useful. So thank you
(!!!): Marc Picard, Jussi Karlgren, Jai Hyun Chung, Torsten Leuschner,
John Phillips, Uta Lenk, Jan Engh, Alan R. King, Steve Harlow, Sukriye
Ruhi, and Bora.

2. The topic

My interest in the use of intensifiers relates to the study of the
semantics (and "pragmatics") of lexical reiteration, or "syntactic
reduplication", as termed by Anna Wierzbicka in "Cross-Cultural
Pragmatics" from 1991 (Mouton). To make a complex story short, W is
chiefly of the opinion that Italian reduplicative constructions like
"bella bella" (i.e. 'beautiful') or "neri neri" (i.e. 'black') cannot
adequately be analyzed as cases of intensification. Intensification
proper is expressed with the help of an intensifier adverb, typically
"molto" in Italian, and "very" in English; these are used with
gradables and signal 'a high degree'. W suggests that reduplication,
in turn, expresses primarily sincerity and that the reduplicated item
is used accurately and responsibly in a particular
context. Reduplication is not then limited to gradable
items. Moreover, reduplication (in Italian!) signals that the
expression that is being used involves no exaggeration.

W admits though that the connotation of 'a high degree', i.e.
intensification, is implied in cases where a gradable item is
reiterated. This observation has led me to thinking that the
connection between 'accuracy' and 'a high degree' is probably a very
common semantic path in languages. In fact, it is manifest in
expressions like those in (i) and (ii) above, where the intensifiers
have developed from items that refer to accuracy. What I would like to
suggest is that contents like 'accuracy, sincerity' and 'a high
degree' are not strictly different phenomena but, rather, constitute a
natural semantic continuum. In my query I was after some more
cross-linguistic evidence for this hypothesis.

The data I received seem to support the continuum view, although the
number of examples could/should be made a bit larger yet. I will
briefly summarize the replies below.

3. Summary of replies

First, when it comes down to English, there are intensifiers that have
a straightforward relation to "truth" or "reality", i.e. the
exemplified cases with TRULY and REAL(LY). But it was pointed that the
common adverb VERY, indeed, is the most obvious example of this
development. The word has its origins in Old French V(E)RAI that means
'true'. The source meaning may be somewhat opaque for ordinary
speakers but it should be noted that in biblical language VERILY means

For French, then, it can be noted that VRAIMENT and RE'ELLEMENT are
analogously used as intensifiers.

WIRKLICH is a common "truth"-intensifier in German;
 Das ist wirklich klein.

Even more interesting is that ECHT ('real, genuine') is being more and
more popular in colloquial usage:
 Er ist echt nett. ('He is really nice')

This is supposed to have been borrowed from Dutch:
 Hij is echt leuk. ('He is really nice')

Welsh has the intensifiers IAWN and GWIR which mean 'right,
correct' and 'true' respectively when used as adjectives:
 da iawn ('very good')
 gwir dda ('very good', a more formal expression)

 mae hynny'n iawn ('that's correct', 'that's alright')
 mae hynny'n wir (that's true)

A cognate of the Welsh GWIR occurs in Gaelic languages, e.g.
in Manx:
 feer vie ('very good')

 ta shen feer (that's true')

Irish and Scottish Gaelic are said to have analogous forms.

In Serbocroat the intensifier STVARNO is related to a word
meaning 'reality', "stvarnost":
 stvarno mali ('really small')

Reminiscent of this is the case with the Turkish GERCEK-TEN
where the stem means 'real':
 gercekten guzel bu ('really beautiful/nice this -- this is
 really beautiful')

A note on the spelling above: the letter /c/ has a little
tail under it (like the French garcon) and /u/ in "guzel" has

Also Mandarin Chinese shows an expected development; the word
ZHEN1 ('true') may be used as an intesifier:
 zhen xiao ('really small')

Korean has semantically corresponding expressions in CEONGMAL
('real') and CINZZA ('truly'):
 ceongmal/ceongmallo cagun ('real/really small')
 cinzza/cinzzaro cagun ('truly small')

Note that the transcription of the Korean script is only an

I myself could increase the list with Finnish, where OIKEIN ('right,
correct') and TODELLA ('truly') or TOSI ('true') may be used as
intensifying adverbials:
 oikein pieni ('really small')
 todella suuri ('truly big')
 tosi kaunis ('truly beautiful')

4. Conclusion

In sum, cross-linguistic evidence seem to suggest that there is a
natural semantic path from expressions for sincerity and accuracy to
items that carry the grammatical function of an adverbial intensifier
(and that give the connotation of 'a high degree' with
gradables). Hence, there is no sharp opposition between concepts like
'accuracy' and 'intensification', but the whole thing is more of a
continuum. I think the inspiring but radical analysis in Wierzbicka
1991 (chapter 7 more precisely) needs this kind of a moderation. In
any case, it is an idea that I would like to put forward in my
upcoming analysis of lexical iterative constructions.

I will appreciate comments and possible further examples from
yet more languages. There might also be literature on the
topic, something that I plausibly have missed, so any
pointers are welcome as well.

 * * * *

Thank you for your interest!

Jan Lindstrom
Scandinavian languages
P.O. Box 4
00014 University of Helsinki

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