Actually, I May be Going out on a Limb Here

We took our friends’ daughters to the Harry Potter Exhibit at the Pacific Science Center this weekend.  You’re packed cheek and jowl with an ocean of excited ten year olds and the merchandising is out of control, but if you want to see tweed suits that Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent and David Thewlis have actually worn, this is the place for you.

They admit you in groups of thirty every half hour, and as you approach the front of the line a bored Seattle Center employee launches into his spiel.  “There is no cellphone use inside and no pictures.  There’s no eating or drinking.  There’s also actually no bathrooms.”  It’s the fiftieth time he’s said it that day, so you can’t expect any tone of apology to enter his voice–plus we’re all accustomed to cell phone prohibitions–but the lack of bathrooms still requires some show of contrition.  That’s where the “actually” comes in.  In the sense used here, “Actually, S” means “I’m sorry, but S is true.”  A more by-the-book sentential adverb would be “regretfully”, but that could sound a little high-handed, which is precisely the tone you don’t want to strike in front of a crowd of frazzled parents.  The apologetic sense is related to the more familiar “in actuality” sense in that it acknowledges a deviation from an expectation.  If in your day-to-day life you encounter a tweed suit, your first thought isn’t “I bet David Thewlis wore that” so actuallyrealis serves as a cue to be on the lookout for something unexpected.  Likewise actuallyapology serves a similar alert function inasmuch as you generally expect not to be disappointing the person you’re speaking to.  However, apologetic actually isn’t concerned with reality per se, but rather with social obligations.

Aside from the empirical observation, I think there are two interesting methodological points here:

  1. There is a tendency in both folk and scientific linguistics to think of word meanings as primarily factual, logical things with a few illocutionary corner cases like “please”, “hello” and “thank you” where the lexicon necessarily contains a description of a specific social situation.  But I suspect this socially-specific lexical class is bigger than we think.
  2. Someone could plausibly argue that my actuallyrealis/apology distinction is too fine-grained: that there is really just one actuallydeviation-from-expectation sense here, and whether that deviation is from a social or a factual norm is a matter of pragmatics that doesn’t belong in the lexicon.  That this disagreement is possible is itself interesting, because there is again a tendency in linguistics to think of the lexicon as a fundamentally discrete structure.  Each entry has a list of senses, and though they are usually related, they are nevertheless distinct.  One does not shade over into another. The actuallyrealis/apology distinction here, though, indicates otherwise: lexicon granularity is a continuously varying property that can be adjusted with smooth turns of the lumper/splitter dial.
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2 Responses to Actually, I May be Going out on a Limb Here

  1. Breckenridge says:

    I still can’t shake what happened to the word “actually” in my brain when I moved to France. For them Actuellement means “presently”. Now I sometimes confuse myself….

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    I’ve never spoken another language well enough to know what effect the it-means-the-same-thing-except-different phenomenon has on my English, but I do find that it helps my vocabulary retention of foreign languages. For instance, the chain of reasoning [[actuellement]] = [[actually]] except only as regards a specific moment in time is just odd enough to stick in my head.

    (Nb. co-opting the linguistic formalism [[X]] = meaning of X.)

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