Thursday, March 21, 2013

Totally Modally

The English adverb totally is an interesting study. My guess is that most dictionaries would define it along the lines of "not partially," and it is certainly not uncommon in this meaning, as in the following instances (all citations are from the COCA corpus):

1. He wanted to have it totally reconstructed. (= He wanted all of it, not part of it, reconstructed.)
2. Totally paralyzed patients require artificial ventilation. (=Partially paralyzed patients may not need artificial ventilation.)
However, many of the uses of totally these days use it as a near-synonym of very, with gradable adjectives:

3. It was totally gross. (=It was very gross, not "All of it was gross.")
4. He is totally creative. (=He is very creative, not "He is creative in every way.")
5. I think to focus on that is to totally do a disservice. (= To focus on that is a big disservice, not "To focus on that is not just a partial disservice.")

There is a third use of totally that is gaining ground, at least in informal speech, which utiizes totally as a modal expression expressing certainty or obligation:

6. I totally have to go on a diet. (= I must go on a diet.)
7. I can totally, totally, totally explain this. (= I am definitely able to explain this.)
8. I totally didn't ever hear it. (= I assure you, I didn't ever hear it.)
9. I totally felt violated. (=I definitely felt violated.)
10. Q: It makes you more relaxed, right? A: Totally. (=I definitely agree.)

A trademark of the third use is that totally usually precedes the verb phrase instead of an adjective or adjective phrase. (Note that no. 5 above could be interpreted as an example of the third type: I think to focus on that is definitely to do a disservice.) You can feel the difference if we move the position of totally in no. 9: I felt totally violated (= either I felt very violated or I felt violated in every way, but not I definitely felt violated).

My interest in this is that the so-called tautological infinitive absolute (TIA) in Biblical Hebrew has some interesting features in common with the forms in #6-10, in that the infinitive preposed to a verbal phrase often has modal meaning:

kol asher yedabber bo yavo (I Sam 9:6) "All that he says will certainly happen"
mot tamut (Gen 2:17) "You must die"
mahor yimharennah (Ex. 22:15) "He has to pay the marriage price for her"

In fact, I would go so far as to say (with a recent study by Scott Callaham) that the vast majority of the uses of the TIA fall into this category. The standard grammars don't convey this, and in fact several of them, while noting the modal use of the TIA, also suggest its use as a adverb with a gradable notion (as in #3-5). For instance, van der Merwe et al. (see Bibliography) state that the use of the TIA is sometimes "to define more clearly the nature and scope of the verbal idea" (p. 158). Examples they give are:

ki barekh abarkhekha "I will bless you richly" (Gen 22:17)
mikkol es haggan akhol tokhel "you may freely eat of every tree of the garden" (Gen 2:16)

However, it seems clear to me that both the cited forms should be interpreted modally: "I will certainly bless you" and "you may indeed eat from any tree of the garden." But perhaps it is possible that there is a development here from a "gradable" adverbial use, as in #3-5 of totally to a modal use, as in #6-10. Cross-linguistically, it might make sense.

In the meantime, maybe we should experiment with translating by totally: "If you eat that fruit, you will totally die!" "I will totally bless you." Call it Today's Bible, and it will totally be a best-seller.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Van der Merwe, C. H. J., Naudé, J. A., & Kroeze, J. H. (1999), A Biblical Hebrew reference grammar (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press); Callaham, S. N. (2010), Modality and the Biblical Hebrew infinitive absolute (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz).

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