The uses of the intensifier 'absolutely' in the spoken BNC2014

Karin Aijmer, Göteborg University

Intensifiers are characterized by their rapid turn-over and constant state of renewal and therefore need to be studied in up-to-data spoken corpora. The starting-point for this study was the observation that the intensifier absolutely was more frequent in the SampleSpoken BNC2014  (Love et al 2017) in comparison with its use by previous generations of speakers in the (spoken component of) BNC from the 1990s. The changes undergone by absolutely have been given less consideration  than recent changes involving really and so.

The aim of the present study is to describe the rise in frequency and changes which have taken place in the twenty-year period separating the two BNC corpora in a linguistic, discourse and a sociolinguistic perspective. The results will serve to give a picture of how frequency changes correlate with grammatical and semantic changes and contribute to the debate on the relationship between changes observable over a short diachronic period and long-term developments involving grammaticalization. The more specific research questions are:

  • What are the changes in the frequency of absolutely across the twenty-year period?
  • How are the changes reflected in the patterns of modification with different syntactic constituents (in particular nouns and verbs) and the free-standing absolutely?
  • Intensifiers put the spotlight on the adjective combining with absolutely.  If absolutely is on the rise in present-day British English this may be indicated by the co-occurrence with trendy, age-related adjectives (brilliant, fucking, insane, knackered), and correlation with the positive or negative value of the adjective (semantic prosody).
  • How can the paths of change be described in terms of an increase in subjectivity (intensity) and principles of grammaticalization?
  • How can the dependent (intensifying) and independent (response item) uses of absolutely be explained as different stages of grammaticalization?
  • What is the role of the speakers’ age, gender and social class to explain the grammatical and semantic developments of absolutely (cf Murhpy 2007)?

Preliminary results show that absolutely is becoming less frequent as an adjectival modifier (30% of all the examples of absolutely to be compared with 45.6% in the ‘old’ BNC) and that it is expanding to new syntactic and semantic contexts in conversation where it performs discourse-oriented rather than intensifying functions. In particular it is used as a freestanding lexical item with the function of a response particle marking strong agreement (Tao 2007, Carretero 2010).



Carretero, M. 2010. ‘You’re absolutely right!!’ A corpus-based contrastive analysis of ‘absolutely’ in British English and absolutamente in Peninsular Spanish, with special emphasis on the relationship between degree and certainty. Languages in Contrast 10(2): 194–222.

Love, R., Dembry. C., Hardie. A., Brezina,V. and McEnery, T. . 2017. The Spoken BNC2014 – designing and building a spoken corpus of everyday conversations. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 22  (3):319-344.

Murphy, B. 2010. Corpus and sociolinguistics. Investigating age and gender in female talk. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Tao, H. 2007. A corpus-based investigation of absolutely and related phenomena in spoken American English. Journal of English Linguistics 35(5): 5–29.

Publisert 18. okt. 2018 14:32 - Sist endret 21. nov. 2019 14:29