Intensifiers in English speech have received considerable attention in the literature, due to their flexibility, ongoing changes in the system, and the grammaticalisation processes that some of them undergo. This paper looks first at differences in the use of intensifiers in the speech of adults and teenagers, before moving on to consider in detail two maximisers, absolutely and totally. These were chosen because of their relative frequency within the group of -ly adverbs, their special syntactic behaviour, and the lack of previous contrastive studies. Comparable data from COLT (The Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language) and DCPSE (The Diachronic Corpus of Present-Day Spoken English) were used in the analysis. Findings indicate that teenagers opt for so, really and taboo words (bloody, fucking) when they want to intensify their spoken language, whereas adults prefer very and also some -ly adverbs (totally, absolutely, completely). In addition, both absolutely and totally are shown to be more flexible in the language of teenagers, in that they seem to be spreading gradually to new syntactic environments by performing new functions which are more discourse-oriented, used as emphatic, affirmative response items. This is broadly in keeping with the innovative nature of teen talk as well as with grammaticalisation and delexicalisation processes characteristic of the intensifier system.
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