Grammaticalisation and subjectification of death-related intensifiers in the history
Intensifiers have figured prominently in the literature on semantic change as one of the most conspicuous cases of ‘recycling’ (Tagliamonte 2008), owing to their susceptibility to variation and rapid change (cf., among others, Macaulay 2006; Méndez-Naya 2008; Nevalainen 2008), hence Bolinger’s famous reference to their ‘picture of fevered invention and competition’ (1972: 18). This paper also approaches intensifiers, and aims at tracing the diachronic evolution of three death-related intensifiers in English, namely dead
, to death
(cf. Margerie 2011), and certain uses of the verb die for
, as illustrated in (1)-(3) below:
(1) Our goal is to make it just dead easy for people to find what they want
2011. CBS News_Morn).
(2) It was tough to make pars and every time we did we were tickled to death
BNC. 1990. How we won the open
: the caddies’ stories
(3) I had been dying for this guy at work to ask me out, and he finally did.
2000. ‘When I knew she was a true friend’. Redbook
In particular, it is shown that these intensifiers fit into the grammaticalisation cline described by Adamson (2000), according to which intensifiers originally indicate descriptive or literal meanings ((4)-(5)), gradually develop subjective readings (6)-(7), that is, non-literal meanings, but which can still conjure up death to a certain extent, and at a final stage they grammaticalise as intensifiers (cf. (1)-(3) above). In spite of this, the three intensifiers under analysis here differ in regard to their degree of grammaticalisation (cf. Hopper and Traugott 2003), dead
showing the most advanced stage in the process.
(4) Thine eyes, those christall phialls
, which impars The perfect balme
, to my dead-
, (EEBO. 1593. Barnabe Barnes. Parthenophil and Parthenophe
, elegies and odes
. Sonnet LXXXVII).
(5) VVhen Helena was to be stoned to death
, (EEBO. 1599. Robert Albott. VVits theater
of the little world
(6) and therefore it is better to leave this tender one in her own Country
, then to make
her dye for Sorrow in this our hard Country
, and severe Climate
. EEBO. 1683.
Johannes Commelin. The Belgick
, Netherlandish hesperides
(7) and also that he must that very day of necessity return to the City
, though the truth
of it was
, he had no mind longer to continue in the company of a man that he hated to
. (EEBO. 1674. Charles Cotton. The fair one of Tunis
Data for this diachronic semantic study are drawn from a variety of sources, including the OED
quotation database, the online database Early English Books Online
(EEBO), the Corpus of Historical American English
(COHA), the Brigham Young University
British National Corpus
(BYU-BNC), and the Contemporary Corpus of American
Adamson, Sylvia. 2000. A lovely little example: Word order options and category shift
in the premodifying string. In Pathways of change. Grammaticalization in English
, eds. Olga Fischer, Anette Rosenbach, and Dieter Stein, 39-66. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Bolinger, Dwight. 1972. Degree words
. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.
Hopper, Paul J., and Elizabeth C. Traugott. 2003. Grammaticalization
. 2nd ed.
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. Pure grammaticalization: The development of a teenage
intensifier. Language Variation and Change
Margerie, Hélène. 2011. Grammaticalising constructions: To death
as a peripheral
degree modifier. Folia Linguistica Historica
Méndez-Naya, Belén. 2008. On the history of downright
. English Language and
Nevalainen, Terttu. 2008. Social variation in intensifier use: Constraint on –ly
adverbialization in the past? English Language and Linguistics
Tagliamonte, Sali A. 2008. So different and pretty cool! Recycling intensifiers in
Toronto, Canada. English Language and Linguistics
BYU-BNC = Brigham Young University-British National Corpus
. Davies, Mark. 2004-
COCA = Corpus of Contemporary American English
. Davies, Mark. 2008- 2012.
COHA = Corpus of Historical American English
. Davies, Mark. 2010-2012. Available
EEBO = Early English Books Online.
Chadwyck Healey. 2003-2012. Available online
= Oxford English Dictionary
. 1989. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Online version with revisions available at:
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