Exploring the nexus between semantic and social meaning: the case of totally.

Andrea Beltrama (University of Chicago)—Semantics, Pragmatics.

Linguistic expressions carry two distinct kinds of meaning. On the one hand, they convey a semantic meaning, with which they are conventionally associated in the grammar of the language. On the other, they convey a social meaning (Labov 1963, Eckert 1989), that is, a set of typified socio-psychological qualities about the identity of their users, ranging from demographic categories to more idiosyncratic attributes. While these two layers of content have been for the most part investigated on parallel tracks, recent work has suggested that semantic and social meaning crucially interact to determine the content communicated by linguistic forms (Acton and Potts 2014, Glass 2015), calling for a more integrative approach. 

In this talk, I extend this perspective by focusing on the intensifier totally in American English, an expression that presents considerable empirical richness for both social and semantic meaning. In the first part of the presentation, I discuss the pattern of semantic/pragmatic variation in which totally is embedded, with particular attention towards two dimensions:
(i)     the distinction between lexical uses (e.g., “The glass is totally full”) and speaker-oriented uses (e.g., “You should totally click on that link!”, Irwin 2014);
(ii)    within speaker-oriented totally, the distinction between contexts in which the intensifier is licensed by an explicit linguistic cue and contexts in which it is instead licensed via accommodation.

In the second part of the talk, I present evidence of a connection between these semantic/pragmatic differences and the social meaning of totally. Relying on data from two social perception studies, I show that listeners perceive users of speaker-oriented totally as younger, more likely to be female, higher in Status and lower in Solidarity than users of lexical totally. In addition, listeners perceive users of speaker-oriented totally as even more strongly marked along these dimensions when the intensifier is licensed via accommodation. I explain this pattern by proposing that totally  is more likely to be interpreted as a social marker when its semantic properties foster affective and evaluative convergence between the interlocutors at the pragmatic level.

Looking at the broader picture, I suggest that these results, though preliminary, cast light on how the lexical, pragmatic and social dimensions of linguistic meaning interact with one other, unveiling a picture in which these components actively interact to determine what language expressions communicate. I conclude the presentation by outlining several linguistic domains to which this research could be fruitfully extended (e.g., subjective mood in Romance, “verbal crutches” in English).