Truly Trending: An Interview on Intensifiers

William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer.

Sali Tagliamonte is a linguist at the University of Toronto, where she studies language variation and change. Her latest book, Teen Talk: The Language of Adolescents, was published in June.

I called Tagliamonte because I’d noticed more and more people using the word truly. All of a sudden it seemed to be everywhere: in work e-mails and movie reviews, in headlines, on Twitter, on Twitter, and on Twitter. “It truly is up to us,” Hilary Clinton said this summer in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. A week prior, in Cleveland, Trump had remembered his “truly great mother.”

Is truly trending? I couldn’t tell—Liane Moriarty’s book, Truly Madly Guilty, had just published. There had been that Savage Garden song in the nineties, and the Lionel Richie one in the eighties. I wanted to find out more, so I did what anyone with a linguistics question would do: I e-mailed Noam Chomsky. To my surprise, he wrote back within half an hour, suggesting I ask “an outstanding sociolinguist like William Labov.” So I did. Labov told me, “The person who has done the most work on intensifiers like truly is Prof. Sali Tagliamonte.” 

I reached Tagliamonte on a train to Ottawa. She explained that an intensifier is a word that boosts another word’s meaning, like when, in Friends, Joey says: “This is so weird.” Soamplifies the emotional persuasiveness of the message, but it doesn’t change the factual content. Compare that with this line from Beowulf, where so is used in a construction and is therefore not really an intensifier but a comparative: “nothing so wise / From a warrior so young has ever reached.”

trulyTagliamonte studies fluctuations in intensifier usage and popularity. According to her paper, “So Weird; So Cool; So Innovative,” published in English Language and Linguistics, we cycle through intensifiers faster than other words. In the twelfth century, she writes, a word we’ve since abandoned, swiþe, was the most frequent intensifier. Walter W. Skeat, for example, described a woman as “a mayden swiþe fayr” in his 1280 edition of “The Lay of Havelok the Dane.” “Eventually,” Tagliamonte continues, “swiþe was supplanted by wellWell was then replaced by full, which was in turn replaced by right.” Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle, from 1297, states “Engelond his a wel god lond.” About a century later, Chaucer, in the “General Prologue” to his Canterbury Tales, describes a woman who speaks French “ful faire and fetisly,” and a guy as “a verray parfit gentil knyght.” By 1900, a few centuries later, really appeared in print more often than verypretty, and right. “Intensifiers,” Tagliamonte says, “are like fashion—they evolve often and, compared to the words they modify, very quickly.” I asked her a few questions about them.

INTERVIEWER

Have you noticed an increase in the use of the word truly?

TAGLIAMONTE

There’s very little use of it in my material—but that only goes up to 2010. Everything I work with has been collected and transcribed, and we can track language change in there, but we can’t track language change month to month, unless you do it on the Internet—and then, you know, you’d need to filter that material a lot. If you look at Google, and you search for truly in the last month, you can see that there are some hits. But whether that actually tells you that it’s trending, or how it’s trending, or who’s using it … that would have to be a study, and that study has not been done, as far as I know.

INTERVIEWER

What’s an example of a way to track language change?

TAGLIAMONTE

We have something called the “Toronto corpus” that represents a community with a wide age range, from nine-year-olds to octogenarians. These people are born anywhere from the early 1900s right through to the late eighties, like my youngest kids. You can see on my website—I’ve been tracking various linguistic changes over the last ten years, and it’s astounding how quickly certain systems are changing. What you’re picking up on with your observation about truly is that intensifiers tap into vibrant language change, because they are subject to fashion—people pick up on them very easily. I did this study of the TV series Friends. At that time, people were starting to use so very strongly. And I noticed it, just like you’re noticing people saying truly. I thought the best way to look at it would be to look at the most popular sitcom ever, right? We showed that the characters on this show were actually pushing the frequency of so usage forward very strongly.

INTERVIEWER

You’re saying there’s actual feedback between the characters and the audience?

TAGLIAMONTE

Yes. The data shows us that language changes in these very strong ways depending on what people think is cool or trendy. Intensifiers are a great way to track that—they are a litmus test for language change. And if you can show that it’s the young women that are picking up on this trend, then that’s another indicator of linguistic change. Because we know that women lead when it comes to linguistic change, 95 percent of the time.

INTERVIEWER

Is that a real statistic?

TAGLIAMONTE

Yeah, it’s real. People have replicated that finding over and over again in many studies all over the world. Women are the ones who push language forward. In my Friends study, for example, the women characters were using more of this new intensifier so than the guys. It was remarkable. When I did the 2008 study in Toronto, you could see that it was adolescent women, a lot more so than anyone else, who pushed forward that intensifier.

But an intensifier can only be used so much—and then it’s not intense. You have to pick a new one. That’s why intensifiers are good to track this development. If people keep using it and using it, then it’s not intense anymore. It loses its allure. If all the trendy people are using so, for example, but then if everyone starts using it, it’s no longer trendy. So you know Bill Labov—he told you to call me! He’s one of the foremost researchers in how languages changes. He came up with six foundational sociolinguistic principles, one of which says that women lead linguistic changes. Another one is that the middle classes lead linguistic change. People who are central to the community, with links down into the lower classes and up into the upper classes—those are the people who are kind of moving between the layers of society, and they transport the new features of society from one tier to the other, and language spreads in that way. I had one of my students look at intensifiers in Chaucer and it patterns beautifully with the different characters. Dickens is another writer who was very into language—he used language very effectively to depict where his characters were from, lower or upper class.

INTERVIEWER

In your paper, you suggest that the actors themselves were bringing some of the dialogue to the show.

TAGLIAMONTE

That was one of the things I argued, that Courteney Cox and the rest of the cast were picking up on this trendy thing outside of the show, and then they kept using it a little bit more. They picked up on what was already in the speech community. Friends was so popular, and those actors were so popular, that they actually had quite a lot of license to adapt the dialogue in their own way. Other shows don’t have that—so it was a particularly good show to tap into.

INTERVIEWER

Does the heavy use of intensifiers in the globalized media threaten regional intensifiers?

TAGLIAMONTE

That’s not clear. People like to sound like where they come from. You can only push this study so far. You can look at communities—do the young people want to leave that community to live in New York? Then they’re going to try and talk like people in the bigger world. But if they don’t want to leave, they’ll maintain their local words. So if you go to a small town in Nova Scotia, for example, people are saying “right good.” And if you go to small towns across the U.S., they’re probably using different intensifiers than people in New York do. In Chaucer it was well, that was “well good.” I hear my kids saying “super cool.” So it goes. Every generation has its way of intensifying.

Peter Nowogrodzki is the nonfiction editor of Fence.

Truly Trending: An Interview on Intensifiers

 

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