LINGUIST List 7.352

Thu Mar 7 1996

Disc: Intensifiers

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Joel M. Hoffman, 7.348, Sum: "Truth"-intensifers
  2. "Alan R. King", Discussion: Intensifiers

Message 1: 7.348, Sum: "Truth"-intensifers

Date: Tue, 05 Mar 1996 23:06:00 EST
From: Joel M. Hoffman <>
Subject: 7.348, Sum: "Truth"-intensifers
>A couple of weeks ago I posted a query concerning intensifier
>expressions that are related to meanings like 'true' or 'real'.
>[... e.g.:]
>(i) verkligt/faktiskt liten
> real/really small
>(ii) riktigt liten
> truly small"

First, another data point from another lanaguge:

In Modern Hebrew we find:
	1. a. mamas katan b. be'emet katan
 real small in'truth small

with similarly intensified meanings. 

But consider also the re-understanding of the phrase "literally,"
which, of course, means "really" and thus ought properly to be used
only in opposition to "figuratively." But, in fact, "literally" is
used to mean "very." Because "literally" is for the most part used
only with idioms, this intensification usage is a bit harder to detect
than with simple adjectives, but:

	2. He literally flew off the handle.
	3. We're literally looking for a needle in a haystack.

The pedantic purist in me refuses to accept this usage, but I hear it
frequently ("literally all the time").

These data, it would seem, constutue further support of Jan
Lindstrom's thesis that: ``there is no sharp opposition between
concepts like `accuracy' and `intensification.' ''

However, if so, we would expect cases of intensifiers being used for
accuracy, not merely vice versa. Does "a lot" in any language mean
"in reality"? I suspect not.

And so we might perhaps more accurately conclude that intensity is the
paradigmatic instantiation of reality, that is, the most common way of
being real is by being intense. So denotations of reality at first
connote intensity, and then, by association, denote intensity.

-Joel Hoffman
( -or-
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Message 2: Discussion: Intensifiers

Date: Wed, 06 Mar 1996 18:15:54 GMT
From: "Alan R. King" <>
Subject: Discussion: Intensifiers
In response to Jan Lindstrom's recent summary on "truth"-intensifiers which
ends with an invitation for further discussion, I would like to put in my
tuppence-worth and express certain differences with Lindstrom's conclusion.

The empirical part of Lindstrom's thesis is hardly open to challenge: (a) in
some languages of the world, equivalents of English _very_ (glossable as "to
a high degree") either mean, or are etymologically related to a meaning,
"truly, really..." (described as indicators of "sincerity"). The immediate
conclusion that (b) "the connection between 'accuracy' and 'a high degree'
is probably a very common semantic path in languages" also seems reasonable.
There is however a certain conceptual leap involved in the passage from here
to the suggestion that (c) "contents like 'accuracy, sincerity' and 'a high
degree' are not strictly different phenomena but, rather, constitute a
natural semantic continuum"; such ideas as this reveal a lack of insight
into the nature of semantic and, indeed, linguistic phenomena. While the
(statistically not very significant) data adduced - to which I contributed -
supports proposition (b), the "common semantic path" idea, it doesn't seem
to say anything directly about (c), the "natural semantic continuum"
hypothesis (inasmuch as this is intended to differ in meaning from (b)).

I don't know off hand if this question has been researched systematically
(perhaps it would be a good thing to look into if not!), but I would venture
a tentative guess that in any language there is the possibility of using
expressions of "sincerity" to convey (pseudo-)intensification, at least by
pragmatic implicature; that is, of using a sentence that *means* "That is
really/truly/honestly... good" to *convey* the idea "That is very good" (as
e.g. with colloquial English _That is real(ly) good_). To my mind this (if
true) doesn't demonstrate the existence of any universal "semantic
continuum" between sincerity and intensification; the explanation(s) are to
be sought elsewhere (maybe in a pragmatics textbook).

In such cases the expressions (whatever their formal realizations) that in
all the world's languages signify "really/truly/honestly..." obviously are
not to be further glossed as "very"; they merely have the potential to be
assigned such a value by virtue of certain more general pragmatic processes.
It is my guess that some of the examples given in Lindstrom's survey would
come under this descriptions; others obviously would not.

In languages where, as with English _very_, a word that can be glossed as
"to a high degree" derives historically from one expressing "sincerity", the
synchronic situation is somewhat different. If the "sincerity" meaning is
utterly lost synchronically, then there is no (synchronic) phenomenon to
talk about, of course. But even where the word retains both meanings and a
single form, as with the Welsh _iawn_ "real(ly)" and "very", if the
intensifying ("very") function is sufficiently conventionalized or even
grammaticalized (becoming the standard, stylistically unmarked, semantically
bleached vehicle for this meaning), then this use should be referred not to
pragmatic processes such as implicature but rather to the lexicon or grammar
into which it has been incorporated as such. (Such is the case in Welsh.)

Only in cases such as that of Welsh need we ask what the status is of the
synchronic relationship between the two uses of _iawn_ and wonder how (or
where) to describe this. The diachronic source of the relationship is of
course clear: conventionalization and lexicalization or grammaticalization
of a particular instance of a commonplace pragmatic phenomenon. Thus, no
semantic continuum....

The only continuum involved here is, of course, that of the
conventionalization/lexicalization/grammaticalization process involved,
which may itself have both diachronic and synchronic manifestations. (For
this, see the grammaticalization literature.)

By the way, the world's languages show many other sources of "very" words
besides items originally meaning "truly" or "really". Italian _molto_ means
"much". Hawaiian _loa_ means "long".... Dialects of Basque use a variety
of words with different original meanings: _oso_ "completely", _biziki_
"vividly", _izigarri_ "frightfully"... I don't think we would want to posit
a new semantic continuum to account for every such case!

Alan R. King
Gipuzkoa, Basque Country
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