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Information on intensifiers

Expressions like German selbst, Russian sam, Latin ipse and English himself/herself/itself as in The president himself will open the meeting exhibit very special semantic and morphosyntactic properties. These expressions are often referred to as 'emphatic reflexives' or simply 'emphatics', but the most generally accepted and least misleading label is probably 'intensifier'. Intensifiers can be characterized as expressions that establish a contrast between a 'central' referent on the one hand, and a set of alternative ('peripheral') referents on the other. For example, the intensifier in the NP the president himself serves the function of relating the president to his periphery or 'entourage' (the president's secretary, the president's spokesman etc.). The periphery of a referent x can also be defined as the set of all individuals y that stand in some contextually salient relation to x. Analyses of intensifiers can be found in König (1991, 2001), Siemund (2000), Hole (2002), Gast (2006), and Töpper (2002).

Intensifiers may occur in different positions of a clause. The contribution which they make to the interpretation of a sentence varies accordingly. We distinguish between two basic use types of intensifiers: on the one hand, intensifiers may be in construction with an NP; on the other hand, they may adjoin to some verbal projection. We refer to the first type of intensifiers as 'adnominal intensifiers' (cf. (1)), and to the second one as 'adverbial intensifiers' (cf. (2)).

(1) [The Queen herself] has come to my birthday party.
(2) I [know the answer myself].

Moreover, two different uses of adverbial intensifiers can be differentiated on the basis of both semantic and syntactic considerations. In some instances, intensifiers have a meaning similar to alone or without help, while in others, they appear to be akin to inclusive focus particles such as also or too. Relevant examples are given in (3) and (4), respectively.

(3) I always open my letters myself.
(4) I have children myself.

We refer to the use type of intensifiers exemplified in (3) as 'adverbial-exclusive', and to the one illustrated in (4) as 'adverbial-inclusive'.

In addition to the adnominal and adverbial use types exemplified above, there is a fourth usage of intensifiers which we call 'attributive'. Such attributive intensifiers are used in a genitive-like construction to modify NPs (e.g. Mandarin ziji de, Turkish kendi-GEN 'of -self'). English, like most European languages, has a specialized attributive intensifier, viz. own (cf. Germ. eigen, Span. propio etc.). We refer to own and similar expressions from other languages as 'attributive intensifiers' because we assume that an NP of the form X's own Y is interpreted as 'the Y of X himself' (cf. (5)).

(5) Jack's own car (~ 'the car of Jack himself')

Our typology of intensifiers is summarized in Diagram 1. The abbreviations used in glosses and tables are indicated in parentheses.

adnominal (ADN) attributive (OWN) adverbial-exclusive (AVE) adverbial-inclusive (AVI)
Diagram 1: Different use types of intensifiers


Gast, V. (2006). The Grammar of Identity -- Intensifiers and Reflexives in Germanic Languages. London: Routledge.

Hole, D. (2002). 'Agentive selbst in German', in Katz, G., Reinhard, S. and Reuter, P. (eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung VI, 133-50. Osnabrück: Institute of Cognitive Sciences.

König, E. (1991). The Meaning of Focus Particles. London: Routledge.

--- (2001). 'Intensifiers and Reflexives', in Haspelmath, M., König, E., Oesterreicher, W. and Raible, W. (eds.), Language Typology and Language Universals -- an International Handbook of Contemporary Research, 747-60. Berlin: Mouton.

Siemund, P. (2000). Intensifiers in English and German -- a Comparative Perspective. London: Routledge.

Töpper, S. (2002). A Cross-linguistic Analysis of Adverbial-Exclusive Intensifiers. MA thesis, Free University of Berlin.