English Language and Linguistics vol:20 issue:2 pages:221-249
This article reconstructs the history of very and the paths of change along which it acquired new meanings. We base this description on extensive corpus analysis, proposing an analytical model that, firstly, assigns general semantic functions to the (sub)modifier relations in the English noun phrase and, secondly, identifies subsenses of these functions on the basis of semantic and pragmatic distinctions observed in different contexts. Thus, we arrive at what is – to our knowledge – the most comprehensive description of the various (sub-)modifier relations in which very has functioned in its history. This description allows us to interpret the history of very as a paradigm case of progressive grammaticalization and (inter)subjectification involving leftward movement in the English NP (Adamson 2000). Having been borrowed into English as part of fixed collocations such as very Ihus (‘the true Jesus’), and croice verra (‘the true cross’), very successively acquired the functions of descriptive modifier, noun-intensifier, focus marker, adjective-intensifier, classifier, determiner-emphasizer, quantifier-intensifier and postdeterminer. For all these grammatical functions, we reconstruct the more specific, context-bound senses of very that came to be successively construed. Our analytical model also allows us to capture the finer mechanisms of change associated with the acquisition of new grammatical functions by very such as invited inferences and collocational extension.