Thursday, 19 May 2011

So, part 1: with adjectives

I miss Friends so much; it was so funny and so true.

While reading an interesting journal article about adjectival intensifiers in the TV show Friends by Sali Tagliamonte and Chris Roberts, I learned two things: one, I would be totally willing to work as a linguistic researcher and/or data compiler; and two, Friends is not to be blamed for the usage of the word ‘so’ as adjectival intensifier. It’s only to blame for making some of us aware of it.

Tagliamonte and Roberts went straight to the source for the history of the word so, the OED 2nd Edition. Their reading of the entry is that so, used as an intensifier, dates back to Beowulf; however, the OED online only admits so specifically as an intensifier as early as 1923. Either case pre-dates Friends definitively. Tagliamonte and Roberts’ claims are that intensifier use is based on trend and popularity (like slang, unlike other parts of speech) and that, even in Friends, the word follows strict usage rules for intensifiers coming into popularity.

Apparently, there are rules about how intensifiers act when they are coming into or going out of popularity. The process is called “delexicalization” and follows these stages of broadening usage:
  1. Lexical word 
  2. Used for occasional emphasis 
  3. Used more frequently 
  4. Used with wider and wider range of words. 
Meanwhile, the original meaning of the word is gradually lost. (Psst, quick, define “very”!)

In the Friends data, the word first only applies with certain other words, as in “so dated” or “so old” but all other adjectives go with the other intensifiers such as really or very. Later in the series and in real life, the word is applied with more diverse adjectives. Another “rule” is that females tend to use new intensifiers more than males, and again, the Friends data are in line with this theory.

But Friends ended in the spring of 2004. In the seven years since, how has the word been used? Is it still on the rise? Has it yet settled into the vernacular? “Intensifier use has long been associated with colloquial and nonstandard usage”, writes Tagliamonte. So we wouldn’t see the usage of so as intensifier from a major publications such as newspapers or literature… would we? 

I want to make it clear that I'm mostly summarizing and commenting on the journal article, the full citation of which follows: 
Tagliamonte, Sali A. and Chris Roberts. "So weird; so cool; so innovative: The use of intensifiers in the television series Friends." American Speech 80.3 (n.d.): 280-300.

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