Se­man­tic bleach­ing in English

Sunday Trust - - FUN & GAMES - [Twit­ter: fa­rooqkper­ogi@gmail.com @fa­rooqkper­ogi <https://twit­ter.com/fa­rooqkper­ogi> with Dear chicken: You are an awe­some-look­ing, fancy chicken, but that does not make you unique. Sorry. Gram­mar Party

Just like skin bleach­ing is the chem­i­cally in­duced less­en­ing of the melanin of a dark or brown per­son’s skin, se­man­tic bleach­ing oc­curs when a word loses or lessens its orig­i­nal mean­ing and be­comes an in­ten­si­fier, that is, a word that has no mean­ing ex­cept to lend em­pha­sis to the word it mod­i­fies. The most com­mon in­ten­si­fier in every­day speech is “very.” The word does noth­ing more than add in­ten­sity to what we say. If I say, for in­stance, that “there were very many peo­ple at the party,” I’ve merely used “very” for em­pha­sis, and noth­ing more.

So al­most all in­ten­si­fiers are se­man­ti­cally bleached words. Lin­guists call them se­man­ti­cally bleached be­cause they of­ten rep­re­sent a diminu­tion of their orig­i­nal mean­ing in the ser­vice of adding em­pha­sis to the words they mod­ify. Let’s take the word “very” as an ex­am­ple. The word orig­i­nally means “true.” In fact, in the 13th cen­tury, the English word for “true,” ac­cord­ing to Dic­tio­nary. com, was “ve­rai” (which was bor­rowed from Nor­man French), from where it evolved to “very.” It shares lex­i­cal an­ces­try with “ver­ily,” “verisimil­i­tude,” “ve­rac­ity,” etc. which all de­note truth­ful­ness.

Al­though “very” still sig­ni­fies “truth” in many uses, we of­ten don’t think of “truth” when we say things like, “That’s so not very nice of you.”

An­other com­mon se­man­ti­cally bleached in­ten­si­fier is “re­ally.” “Re­ally” orig­i­nally means “in ac­cor­dance with truth, fact, or re­al­ity,” that is, ob­serv­able re­al­ness as op­posed to imag­i­na­tion or fan­tasy. But “re­ally” has now been thor­oughly se­man­ti­cally bleached and is now just used for em­pha­sis, such as when some­one says, “Al­though he is not alone, I think he re­ally feels lonely.” The fact of some­one feel­ing “lonely” can’t be proved in re­al­ity by some­one who doesn’t have a di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence of the feel­ing. Al­though the word’s orig­i­nal sense still en­dures in every­day lan­guage, its se­man­ti­cally bleached ver­sion is now more pop­u­lar.

Other rou­tinely se­man­ti­cally bleached words are “ac­tu­ally,” “def­i­nitely,” “ul­ti­mately,” “won­der­ful,” “awe­some,” “amaz­ing,” “in­sanely” (as in, “in­sanely busy”), “out­ra­geously” (as in, “out­ra­geously cheap”), “lit­er­ally,” (as in, “he lit­er­ally stole the coun­try blind”), “aw­fully” (as in, “an aw­fully great per­for­mance”), “to­tally,” “crazy,” “in­cred­i­bly.”

Per­haps the new­est se­man­ti­cally bleached word in Nige­rian English is “fan­tas­ti­cally,” which came to us af­ter for­mer Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron called Nige­ria and Afghanistan “fan­tas­ti­cally cor­rupt,” where “fan­tas­ti­cally” merely in­ten­si­fies “cor­rupt.”

My re­flec­tion on se­man­tic bleach­ing re­calls a May 11, 2011 col­umn I wrote ti­tled, “Su­perla­tive Ex­pres­sions in Amer­i­can English.” See it be­low:

Se­man­tic Bleach­ing Amer­i­can English

A fa­vorite catch­phrase Tex­ans cher­ish about their state is: “ev­ery­thing is big­ger in Texas.” Given Amer­i­cans’ ex­trav­a­gant fond­ness for ex­ag­ger­a­tions, in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion, and su­perla­tive ex­pres­sions, they should prob­a­bly have a shame­lessly im­mod­est catch­phrase for the whole in na­tion that says, “Ev­ery­thing is big­gest in Amer­ica.”

Amer­i­cans are the masters of su­perla­tives and in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion. I have never seen a peo­ple whose con­ver­sa­tional lan­guage is so full of in­ten­tional and un­in­ten­tional ex­ag­ger­a­tions as Amer­i­cans.

In gram­mar, a su­perla­tive is the form of an ad­jec­tive or an ad­verb that in­di­cates its high­est level or de­gree. In the gra­da­tion of the lev­els or de­grees of ad­jec­tives or ad­verbs, it’s usual to talk of the base, com­par­a­tive, and su­perla­tive de­grees. English su­perla­tives are nor­mally cre­ated with the suf­fix “est” (e.g. wealth­i­est, strong­est) or the word “most” (e.g. most re­cent, most beau­ti­ful). But some words are by na­ture su­perla­tive and re­quire no suf­fix or “most” to in­di­cate their de­gree. Ex­am­ples: ab­so­lute, fa­vorite, unique, per­fect, etc. There­fore, it would be su­per­flu­ous (or, as gram­mar­i­ans say it, pleonas­tic) to write or say “most ab­so­lute,” “most unique,” etc.

So su­perla­tive ex­pres­sions are boast­ful, hy­per­bolic ex­pres­sions that some­times have no lit­eral re­la­tion­ship with the re­al­ity they pur­port to de­scribe. In this es­say, I iden­tify the most com­mon su­perla­tive ex­pres­sions I’ve en­coun­tered in Amer­i­can English.

In con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can English, in­stead of sim­ply say­ing some­thing like “it’s re­ally nice,” young Amer­i­cans say “it to­tally rocks!” The “best ex­pe­ri­ence” be­comes “the ab­so­lute best ex­pe­ri­ence ever.” Kids no longer just have “best friends”; they now have “Best Friends For­ever.” There is even an ini­tial­ism for it: BFF. (An ini­tial­ism, also called an al­pha­betism, is an ab­bre­vi­a­tion made up of first let­ters of words or syl­la­bles, each pro­nounced sep­a­rately. E.g. HIV, BFF, CEO). My daugh­ter changes her BFFs ev­ery other week! “For­ever” now has an ex­pi­ra­tion date.

On Amer­i­can TV it’s now com­mon to hear teenagers use “bestest” (a non­stan­dard word) to heighten the sense that the su­perla­tive ad­jec­tive “best” con­veys, as in: “we had the bestest party ever!” “Bad­dest” is an­other non­stan­dard su­perla­tive in Amer­i­can youth lingo. The word has been a part of African-Amer­i­can ver­nac­u­lar English (or Ebon­ics) for a long time. It’s now fully in­te­grated into mainstream, mostly youth, con­ver­sa­tional English. But “bad” here is not the ab­sence of good. It is, on the con­trary, the sur­feit of good­ness or “kewl­ness” (kewl­ness is de­rived from “kewl,” which is the non­stan­dard slang term for “cool,” i.e., fash­ion­able, ex­cel­lent, or so­cially adept) or great­ness. So “the bad­dest guy in town” in the lan­guage of the Amer­i­can youth sub­cul­ture means the best or great­est guy.

The in­ten­si­fier “very” is now con­sid­ered tame and lame in Amer­i­can con­ver­sa­tional English. It has ef­fec­tively been re­placed with “su­per.” Peo­ple are no longer just “very ex­cited”; they are “su­per ex­cited.” It’s no longer com­mon to hear peo­ple be­ing de­scribed as “very smart”; they are “su­per smart.” An al­ter­na­tive in­ten­si­fier is “uber,” which is bor­rowed from Ger­man. It means ex­treme or out­stand­ing, as in, “uber-hero,” “ubers­mart pro­fes­sor,” etc.

But it ap­pears that “su­per” has also ex­hausted its in­ten­si­fy­ing elas­tic­ity. It is now be­ing re­placed with “su­per-duper.” It’s now typ­i­cal to hear Amer­i­cans say they are “su­perduper ex­cited” or that they have eaten “su­per-duper burg­ers.”

Per­fect. In Amer­ica, ev­ery­thing is “per­fect.” Dur­ing Christ­mas, New Year, Mother’s Day, etc. peo­ple get “per­fect gifts” for their loved ones. When ap­point­ment times work well, it’s “per­fect tim­ing.” Things are not just “ac­cept­able”; they are “per­fectly ac­cept­able.” Pres­i­dent Obama once de­scribed high-fly­ing young coun­try singer Taylor Swift as a “per­fectly nice girl.” She is not just nice; she is per­fectly nice. Does that mean she has no blem­ish of any sort? Of course no. It only means “per­fect” has lost touch with its orig­i­nal mean­ing.

When peo­ple re­spond to a ques­tion in the af­fir­ma­tive, a sim­ple “yes” is no longer suf­fi­cient. They say “ab­so­lutely!” The re­sponse to a ques­tion like “did you have a good time there” would more likely be “ab­so­lutely!” than the hith­erto con­ven­tional “yes, I did.”

In Amer­ica, rou­tine, quo­tid­ian events are ha­bit­u­ally called “oneof-a-kind.” On my daugh­ter’s kid TV, pro­grams are al­most al­ways de­scribed as “one-of-a-kind TV event.”

And “best ever” has be­come the de­fault phrase for just about any­thing. My daugh­ter calls me “the best dad ever” each time I give her a treat. Her “best day ever” is any day she has lots of fun. Now, Amer­i­cans are grad­u­at­ing from “ever” to “ever ever.” An Amer­i­can friend of mine de­scribed one of my Face­book pic­tures as “my most fa­vorite pic­ture of you ever ever”! Well, “fa­vorite” is it­self a su­perla­tive word that does not ad­mit of any in­ten­si­fier in stan­dard gram­mar. To add “most” and “ever ever” to “fa­vorite” seems to me like im­pos­ing an un­bear­ably ex­ces­sive bur­den on my poor lit­tle pic­ture!

If an Amer­i­can hates this ar­ti­cle, he would prob­a­bly call it the “worst ar­ti­cle ever writ­ten ar­ti­cle on Amer­i­can fond­ness for su­perla­tives.” If she is a teenager and likes it, she might call it the “bestest writ­ten ar­ti­cle on Amer­i­can fond­ness for su­perla­tives ever ever.”

The Amer­i­can fas­ci­na­tion with ex­ag­ger­a­tion and su­perla­tive lan­guage is prob­a­bly the con­se­quence of the ubiq­uity of ad­ver­tis­ing in Amer­i­can life. Ad­ver­tis­ing tra­di­tion­ally en­gages in hy­per­bole, de­lib­er­ate over­state­ment, and ex­trav­a­gant ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Now that ad­ver­tis­ing has be­come more om­nipresent and more in­tru­sive than ever be­fore (this is no Amer­i­can su­perla­tive, I swear!) in Amer­i­can life, it is log­i­cal that it would in­flu­ence their every­day lan­guage.

Or it could very well be the lin­guis­tic ev­i­dence of the over-sized im­age Amer­i­cans cher­ish about them­selves. When you’re used to be­ing the world’s num­ber one in most things, it’s in­evitable that it will re­flect in your lan­guage sooner or later.

But the ef­fect of all this is that it has blurred the di­vid­ing line be­tween fact and fic­tion in every­day Amer­i­can life. I am now du­bi­ous of many claims here. Ev­ery­thing here is the “world’s big­gest.” For in­stance, At­lanta’s in­ter­na­tional air­port is called the “world’s big­gest and busiest air­port.” Well, it turns out that the claim is not ex­actly ac­cu­rate. In terms of the num­ber of pas­sen­gers that pass through it an­nu­ally, it is in­deed the world’s busiest air­port. But in terms of land mass, there are much big­ger air­ports in the world.

A mod­estly sized farmer’s mar­ket here in At­lanta has also been touted as “the world’s big­gest farmer’s mar­ket.” If it in­deed is, then farm­ers’ mar­kets else­where in the world must be re­ally tiny.

Su­perla­tives cer­tainly make lan­guage col­or­ful, but I worry that their un­tram­meled pro­fu­sion in every­day speech has the po­ten­tial to de­sen­si­tize us to ac­tu­ally ex­cep­tional things around us.

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