Very, really, absolutely. The influence of age and sex on the choice of amplifiers

Seminar Paper, 2018

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Franz Stiegler (Author)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Background
2.1 Classification of amplifiers
2.2 Sex
2.3 Age

3. Methods and data

4. Results

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The differences of daily spoken language could be explained by an internally mo­tivated diasystem that explains language differences due to the speaker’s geographical, social, and situational context of communication. Obviously, there are several more trig­gers that lead to a different choice of words, such as the speaker’s sex or age. This paper focuses on both of the last aspects, the sex and age, with regard to the choice of amplifiers, which fall into the semantic category of degree. “Amplifiers scale [gradable units] up­wards from an assumed norm” (QUIRK et al. 2012: 590), such as a fast car in comparison to a very fast car. Their aim is thus to either enlarge their referring item in space or ca­pacity, or to augment the same in volume or amount (cf. Simpson and Weiner 1989: 418). Whilst doing so, they “indicate [...] a point on an abstractly conceived intensity scale; and the point indicated may be relatively low or relatively high” (Quirk et al. 2012: 589). Whereas many parts of daily language are not really interchangeable (e.g. lexical items), amplifiers are an exception, as their sense in language is to increase the referring unit. At the same time there are many other possibilities, other amplifiers, that have the same effect. Thus, this leaves room for speakers to individualize their speech, which makes it highly interesting and valuable for social studies at the same time. Those individualiza­tions can be categorized regarding the speaker’s age or sex and then evolve to gender or generation discussions.

As a consequence, the question whether a so-called ‘women’s language’ exists became one of the focuses of socio-linguistic studies and is to a high degree yet to be answered. Although this possible women’s language might also exist in texts, it is much more likely to appear in spoken conversations - same accounts for the age. Thus, in this paper, I am going to analyze the choice of amplifiers in spoken British English by men and women in different ages, which will help to better understand how far the choice of words is determined by the speaker’s age and sex.

My choice of amplifiers is based on a previous study by Xiao and Tao (2007) with some minor changes:

absolutely, awfully, bloody, by far, completely, considerably, damn, dead, deeply, enormously, entirely, exceptionally, extremely, fully, greatly, heavily, highly, in­credibly, jolly, particularly, perfectly, pretty, quite, real, really, severely, terribly, thoroughly, totally, utterly, very, wholly

The reasons for these changes are further explained in chapter ‘3. Methods and Data’, after more detailed insights into influences by sex and age and the classification of amplifiers.

2. Background

2.1 Classification of amplifiers

Generally speaking, amplifiers can be divided into two sub-categories: Maximiz­ers (e.g. completely, totally, fully) and boosters (e.g. pretty, quite, particularly) (cf. QUIRK et al. 2012: 589). Briefly explained, these two sub-categories differ in their degree of their amplification. As shown in Figure 1, the maximizers would thus raise the degree to the very end of the scale to - as the name suggests - maximize the referring gradable unit. Boosters also raise the degree of this unit compared to having no amplification, but do not maximize it.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1. The degree of amplification

Sorting the chosen amplifiers by boosters and maximizers leads to the following catego­rization:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 1. Amplifiers categorized as boosters and maximizers, adapted from Quirk et al. (2012: 590f); KENNEDY (1998: 181); PETERS (1993: 48, 263f., 269)

It has to be noted that exceptionally, real, wholly, considerably, enormously, and severely cannot be clearly classified due to a lack of academic verification. Furthermore, dead (cf. PETERS 1993: 265) and extremely (cf. QUIRK et al. 2012: 590; KENNEDY 1998: 181) can be classified as maximizers, as well as boosters. For these reasons, those amplifiers will not appear in further analysis if this classification is necessary. If this classification is redundant, this differentiation will not be made. Furthermore, this categorization leads to a higher number of boosters than maximizers. As not a comparison of those two groups, but a comparison of male/female and age within each category is the aim of this study, this will not affect any results.

Some words tend to rather appear in combination with other words or in specific contexts. The following example should help to better understand what this means:

(1) She has blonde hair.
(2) *She has beige hair.

Every speaker of a high level of English would agree that (1) is much more likely to occur in everyday English than (2). This is the case because the color of the hair rather collo­cates with blonde than with beige. Similar colocations also exist with amplifiers. Some appear in combination with a very broad list of lexical items, others collocate in much more specific combinations (cf. Partington 1993: 183). That being said, awfully could be interpreted as more advanced regarding its degree of delexicalization, as it “collocates with modifiers having positive connotation (e.g. good, nice, and glad) as well as with those having negative ones” (ITO and Tagliamonte 2003: 268). Terribly on the other hand shows preference for negative items. Even further, badly only collocates with deverbalized adjectives with negative connotation (e.g. burned, injured) (cf. ibid. 268). As previously mentioned, the choice of words deviates from speaker to speaker. This raises the question whether men and women use different amplifiers in their everyday spoken English.

2.2 Sex

Especially after Lakoff’S work Language and Woman’s Place was published (1975), linguistics started to be more and more interested in sex differences in language and the question arose, whether a women’s language exists (cf. Mizokami 2001: 145). Whilst the question itself is still highly debated, some characteristics can be attributed to rather female than male discourse.

in a broader way, it can be stated that women have a higher tendency to exhibit more emotional and social behavior (cf. Carli 1990: 947), speak politer, and seem to be more inclined to “prevent the expression of strong statements” (Lakoff 1975: 19). But also, in a narrower, more structural way, some tendencies can be found. Fishman writes that “women ask two and a half times more questions than men [...] and twice as many requests for information or clarification” (1980: 236). Furthermore, she states that women use hedges - here represented as you know - five times more often than men (cf. ibid. 237).[1] According to her, this is due to occurring differences in hierarchy, rather than gen­der, which thus rather reflects their inferior social position than their inferior social train­ing (cf. ibid. 240). These established social differences start early in childhood, while boys, one the one side, learn their competitive style of speech in large hierarchical groups, whereas girls, on the other side, are more likely to learn the supportive speech style in smaller but closer friend groups (cf. Mizokami 2001: 147). This leads to a different be­havior during communication (96% of the interruptions are made by men, only 4% by women; cf. Zimmermann and West 1975: 116; cf. Mizokami 2001: 150), but also a different focus on communication: Women use communication to “develop and maintain rapport and express their feelings” under a socioemotional focus on the cooperative, per­sonal, and interactional aspects of conversation (Janssen and Murachver 2004a: 345; cf. Biber and Burges 2000: 21). Men, on the other side, see communication as a tool to solve problems, report facts, debate issues or express their opinions, which can be sum­marized as a focus on conveying information (cf. Biber and Burges 2000: 21). In other words, women show themselves as person-orientated, whilst men are rather object-orien­tated (cf. Lakoff 1975: 82). This difference gets confirmed through the higher usage of compliments, adverbs, adjectival metaphors/ similes, elliptical sentences, and intensifiers of female, compared to male authors (cf. Janssen and Murachver 2004b: 189). Alt­hough Janssen and Murachver clearly point out the higher usage of intensifiers in fe­male written texts, this is not the same case for spoken language: Xiao and Tao come up with the same results for female authors, but not for spoken language. in spoken language, females use the same number of amplifiers as men do (cf. 2007: 248).

Additionally, women’s higher use of indirect speech and higher conversational support such as minimal responses, hedges, and tag questions lets them appear more ten­tative, hesitant, or uncertain, especially compared with the competitive way of men’s talk. (cf. Mizokami 2001: 142). The reason for doing so might be very purposeful: Women may use tentative language as a subtle influence strategy (cf. Johnson 1976: 101). Carli proves that men were “more influenced by tentative than assertive language [, whereas] women were influenced more by assertive than tentative language” (1990: 948). Thus, speaking tentative allows women to reach their goals more easily, although it makes them simultaneously appear less competent (cf. ibid. 949). This obviously means at the same time that through this behavior, women are not established as strong influencers (cf. Johnson 1976: 103).

Even though this argument is valid, the differences in this language use must not be over interpreted: Tag questions, for example, have many other functions than just ex­pressing uncertainty and can in some contexts even lead to a more powerful language use (cf. Kaplan 2016: 184f.). It also has to be kept in mind that speaking tentatively is not only a matter of sex. Generally, people tend to speak more tentative whenever speaking to a person with a higher status (cf. Carli 1990: 942). Also, all people - men and women alike - speak differently depending on the situation. Thus, as each linguistic behavior is negotiated within the affected group and conversation, generalizing this behavior might lead to false conclusions.

Furthermore, while analyzing language use between the sexes, it has to be differ­entiated between same-sex and mixed-sex communication. Having mentioned the less assertive communication style of women before, this only refers to mixed-sex conversa­tions. During same-sex conversations, women speak more assertively (cf. Carli 1990: 946). Contrary to that, women use more intensifiers and hedges in same-sex dyads than in mixed-sex conversations (cf. ibid. 945, 949).

The huge variations concerning language use and choice of words leads to the con­clusion that such an analysis cannot be based on a few samples only. Certain situations, topics, and contexts “elicit certain behaviors and styles of talk” (Janssen and Murach- ver 2004a: 350). Consequently, it is essential to include as many different situations as possible and reduce the possibility of misassumptions through using a big corpus. This aspect will be further discussed in chapter ‘3. Methods and Data’.

2.3 Age

The choice of intensifiers is not only - as previously mentioned - affected by the speaker’s sex or the occurring speech situation, but also by the speaker’s age. ITO and Tagliamonte explain how the “frequency of intensification is gradually increasing from oldest to the youngest speakers” (2003: 264).


[1] Hedges, such as sort of, you know, maybe, and perhaps, are adverbs or adverb phrases that weaken a statement (cf. Carli 1990: 942).

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Very, really, absolutely. The influence of age and sex on the choice of amplifiers
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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Anmerkung des Dozenten: "Diese Arbeit überzeugt auf ganzer Linie. Eine hoch relevante Forschungsfrage wird identifiziert und souverän verfolgt. Besonders hervorzuheben sind die umfassende Literaturbasis, die steten Bezüge zum aktuellen linguistischen Diskurs, der enorme Detailgrad, die Souveränität im Umgang mit stilistischen Daten, die intelligenten Folgefragen, die sich aus einzelnen Auswertungen ergeben." Sämtliche Forschungsdaten stammen aus dem BNC (British National Corpus), die Hintergrundinformationen, Definitionen und Ansätze aus wissenschaftlich anerkannter Forschungsliteratur.
Amplifier, Linguistik, Linguistics, Intensifier, women's language, differences, age, sex, men vs women, women vs men, booster, boosters, amplifiers, very, really, absolutely, social, social studies, corpus, BNC, British National Corpus, variety, varieties, diasystem, amplification, degree, frequency
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Franz Stiegler (Author), 2018, Very, really, absolutely. The influence of age and sex on the choice of amplifiers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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