Sunday, 26 November 2017

I'm literally lowkey a telly star now

I was on the telly recently! It may just have been the local station, but it's a start. Media stardom beckons! If you want to watch it, it's here.

It's a funny thing, being asked to talk about some research that's not your own and that you may not have actually read (as I hadn't, in this case). I was talking about what the papers had been calling 'gradable adverbs'. As I attempted to explain, it's the adjectives that are gradable and the adverbs that do the grading, so you can describe something as hideously old or bizarrely purple. We are apparently, says a linguist from Lancaster with a book to promote, using less of these and this shows we're becoming more confrontational. Furthermore, this is something we are learning from the Americans. Ding ding ding, all the boxes ticked for a news story: language is fundamentally changing, it reflects a deep and sweeping cultural change, American English is ruining our language.

I haven't read the original research, as I say, so I don't know how much of this Paul Baker actually says. I also couldn't really comment on the veracity of British usage following US usage by around 30 years. But I could say that we definitely are not losing all our adverbs, and it definitely can't be ascribed to us becoming more confrontational. I did agree with my interviewer that the words we are losing are the 'posh' ones (frightfully, awfully and so on), and there is, I'm sure, a link between your desire to sound posh and how direct your attitude is.

But we've got LOADS of these adverbs. We use them all the time. Kind of and sort of and a bit are pretty common, as is pretty, really, etc. They go in and out of fashion. You can check corpora, as Baker did, to find out what ones were preferred in a certain type of text at a certain point in history, and you can do other kinds of searches of online corpora to find out what's going on right now.

Two that I really wanted to mention and didn't manage to are literally and lowkey.

I can't believe that all the papers missed the chance to moan about literally as well, and can only assume that (as evidenced by them using the meaningless phrase 'gradable adverb') that they don't really know what an adverb is so didn't realise that it is one. Anyway; it is.

Literally gets a lot of column inches (or whatever the online equivalent is). People get upset because other people use it as an intensifier rather than using it to mean what they think it should mean. Other better people than me have written about why worrying about this is a fruitless activity, and why the peevers aren't using the literal meaning anyway (=to do with letters) and the slackers aren't using it figuratively (go on, try it - try replacing literally with figuratively. It won't make sense because that's not what it means) so I won't try. But what it is is an intensifier, exactly like what Baker says we are losing, although it's a bit more versatile in terms of its syntax. So there's one more new one we can all adopt.

Lowkey is not so familiar to me; I've never heard it in the wild, I don't think. I've seen it written, online, so it's obviously used by people outside my own social circle (=young people, probably). Gretchen McCulloch has written about it and gives some examples. It means kinda, so it's a 'downtoner' of the kind Baker also says we are losing. There's something more going on, I think, as one of Gretchen's examples has it combined with an intensifier af (= as fuck):
When you're lowkey sad af but trying not to care
But there's another one. We've got tons of these. Come on, people. Use your adverbs. Those adjectives need grading!

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