The usage of intensifiers in Sri Lankan English. A corpus-based study

Essay, 2019

21 Pages, Grade: 13



1. Introduction

2. Theory
2.1 Sri Lanka
2.2 Sri Lankan English
2.3 Intensifiers
2.4 Research questions
2.5 Hypotheses

3. Methodology, Data

4. Results

5. Discussion of Results
5.1 Answering the research questions
5.2 Revisiting the hypotheses
5.3 Future outlook

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

Intensifiers - very small words, but with a very strong impact on language use. In fact, it could be argued that they are so important to study due to their ever-changing nature. Murphy, in 2010, even stated that “the most rapid and the most interesting semantic developments in linguistic change are said to occur with intensifiers.” But why are intensifiers used? According to Hu in 2013, they arise out of “a speaker or writer's desire to be “original” to demonstrate verbal skills, and to capture the attention of an audience.” An even more intriguing part of intensifiers is that this does not seem to work at times. According to Wright in 1995, “the most interesting finding about intensifiers is that they do not seem to affect listeners in the way intended by speakers.” Wright argued that advertisements, for instance, worked less well when an intensifier was added, since they seemed to influence the viewer in a negative way and seemed to take away from the product. However, while researchers disagree on the exact reasons to research intensifiers, be they investigating a speaker's wish for originality, language change, or the fact that intensifiers do, at times, negatively impact the recipient of the intensification, the fact still stands that they are worth investigating.

Sri Lanka is a comparatively small island state south of India. It only recently, in 2009, finally escaped the clutches of colonialism and civil war. Today, it comes into its own more and more, and is finally able to rewrite history on its own terms. Sri Lankan English is a fresh, new research ground that offers a variety of opportunities for the advancement of learning. The theory section will look at the background on Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan English and intensifiers. The current research level will be discussed, and research questions as well as hypotheses will be presented. The methodology and data used will be presented in the section afterwards. Next, the results section will present the results. The research questions and hypotheses will be revisited, and an outlook into possible future research will be provided. Lastly, the conclusion will summarize the findings of the study.

2. Theory

This section provides a theoretical background for the study at hand by presenting a factual background on Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan English, and intensifiers (including previous research on the topic). Furthermore, the research questions and hypotheses will be stated and explained.

2.1 Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a small island state in the Indian Ocean which is situated south of India. It was mentioned for the first time in the sixth century B.C., and was then known as Ceylon. In 1972, the state was renamed to Sri Lanka. A long history of colonialism left its mark on this nation - in 1948, Sri Lanka finally left the last traces of colonialism behind, after having been colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. However, the difficulties did not end there. A civil war raged in the country for many years afterwards, finally coming to a halt in 2009. Nowadays, Sri Lanka is a popular tourist destination and a rather safe, economically stable place.

2.2 Sri Lankan English

Today, 22.5 million people live there (as of July 2018). The official, national languages are Sinhala (87% of the people in Sri Lanka speak it) and Tamil (28.5% of the people in Sri Lanka speak it). English is used as a lingua franca: While not an official language of Sri Lanka, a large part of the population (23.8%, as of 2012) speaks it (Central Intelligence Agency 2019, Web). The variety of English spoken by Sri Lankans is called Sri Lankan English or SLE for short. It has been regarded in many contexts, for instance lexis (Meyler 2007), semantics (Werner & Mukherjee 2012), pronunciation (Gunesekera 2005) and syntax (Bernaisch 2015).

2.3 Intensifiers

Hu et al define intensifiers as such: “Grammatically speaking, intensifiers are adverbs that maximize or boost meaning.” (2013). Quirk (1985: 591) differentiates between two types: Amplifiers, which “scale upwards from an assumed norm”, and downtoners, which “have a lowering effect, usually scaling downwards from an assumed norm.” Examples of intensifiers are ‘really', ‘very', ‘totally' and ‘so', ‘bloody' and ‘completely'. ‘Pretty', on the other hand, can be used as both an amplifier and a downtoner. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines it as “qualifying an adjective or adverb: to a considerable extent; fairly, moderately; rather, quite. In later use also: very” (Romero2012: 8), which is why it will be handled as an amplifier for this study.

This grammatical phenomenon has been investigated in conjunction with many different sociolinguistic factors, such as for instance gender (e.g. Hu 2013, Richard and Tao 2007), age (e.g. Ito and Tagliamonte 2003) and education (e.g. Ito and Tagliamonte 2003). Other areas of intensifier research consist of a variety of genres, e.g. advertisements (Jacobs 2017), news reports (Burgers and De Graaf 2013) and blogs (Van Zutphen 2017). Many varieties of English have been investigated in relation to intensifiers, among these are Canadian English (Tagliamonte 2007), New Zealand English (Saarenpää 2016) and British and American English (Wittouck 2011). However, research on intensifiers in relation to Sri Lankan English is sparse, which this study aims to change.

It should be noted that downtoners, adverbs which decrease meaning, such as ‘quite', ‘a little' and ‘somewhat', while interesting on their own, will not be part of this study, since that would go beyond the scope of the study - they do open up an interesting avenue for future research, however.

2.4 Research questions

Sri Lankan English offers a wide range of opportunities regarding research. This study looks at different genres of Sri Lankan English, and asks the following research questions:

1. To what extend do the genres of SLE differ in regards to the use of intensifiers?
2. To what extend do the genres of SLE differ in regards to the frequency of intensifiers?
3. To what extend do the genres of SLE differ in regards to the types of intensifiers used?

While the first research question aims to answer the use of intensifiers in general, i.e. if they are used at all in the genres at hand, the second research question asks about the quantity of use in every genre. Lastly, the types of intensifiers are looked at via the third research question.

2.5 Hypotheses

Before researching, a number of hypotheses were made about the results. These are as follows:

1. Intensifiers would be used predominantly in non-scripted speech.
2. Intensifiers would be used predominantly in dialogues.
3. Intensifiers would be used predominantly in face-to-face conversations and telephone conversations.
4. Intensifiers would be used least in scripted speech, monologues, legal settings and business contexts.

Firstly, it was assumed that non-scripted speech would use more intensifiers. This was based on the assumption that speech that was prepared in advance (i.e. scripted) would arguably use a lower amount of intensifiers than naturally occurring language, when due to nervousness or other factors, speakers would use a larger amount of intensifiers. Secondly, dialogues seemed like a meaningful place for the usage of intensifiers, since a monologue using many intensifiers seems to be less likely. This was also based on Hu's theory that intensifiers are used to "capture an audience".

Regarding the third hypothesis, it was assumed that talking to another person face-to- face or on the telephone would prompt the usage of intensifiers. A face-to-face conversation could be inviting in regards to the fact that the speaker's and the listener's reactions to one another's stories can be more interesting by using intensifiers. In contrast, on the telephone, holding up an interesting conversation is key, which is why a more ‘spiced up' language use via intensifiers can help maintain a good speech flow. It can also be much more important to emphasize a story's point when unable to use mimics and gestures. Lastly, scripted speech, monologues and settings of a legal or business nature would not, it was hypothesized, invite the usage of intensifiers, since these settings require a professional demeanor and are not of a casual nature, and as Wright for instance speculated, intensifiers seem to leave an unprofessional impression on the intended party.

The results will show if these assumptions turned out to be correct.

3. Methodology, Data

This section explains the methodology that was used, and the data that was analysed, for this study.

ICE-Sri Lanka (SLE) was used, since it offers a vast number of texts from spoken genres, and easily allows to compare and discuss differences. The word count per genre can be found in the table below. It was used in order to normalize values. AntConc 3.3.2 was used as a medium via which to use ICE-Sri Lanka. The following table also presents the genres that were used for the study at hand.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The intensifiers were searched for via AntConc, and then cleaned of non-intensifier usage. All sentences that contained only an intensifying word without context were checked and, if not used in an intensifying manner (but rather, for instance, as a back-channel), they were deleted as well. The words chosen for this study were as follows:

Very, really, so, absolutely, pretty, too, that, right, totally, completely, bloody.

The intensifiers were adapted from Ito and Tagliamonte in 2003. The reason this study was chosen is that Ito and Tagliamonte investigate the usage of intensifiers in York English. York English is still a relatively conservative form of English, which means that it is untouched by outside influence. Since Sri Lanka has a postcolonial history, it was assumed that the two varieties may have things in common. However, York English will not be investigated further - this goes beyond the scope of this study. It should be noted that Ito and Tagliamonte also searched for all other intensifiers in the corpus they used and summarized these under the heading ‘other' (since the remaining intensifiers made up less than 1% of the study), which was not done for this study due to the relative scarcity of intensifier usage.

The usage of intensifiers was displayed both in absolute, relative and normalized values.


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The usage of intensifiers in Sri Lankan English. A corpus-based study
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
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lankan, english
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Michelle Blum (Author), 2019, The usage of intensifiers in Sri Lankan English. A corpus-based study, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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