Tuesday 2 October 2012

On 'at all', at all?

A correspondent thinks he hears at all used ‘at the end of every question one is asked nowadays’. He comments: ‘I reckon it is the bad habit of always trying to lengthen the question when posed by people with little confidence. Recently I was asked in the baker's if I wanted my bread sliced "at all?" It was all I could do to refrain from replying "oh, about half-way through, please".’

I haven’t heard it as much as he seems to have, I must say. But I do recognize the usage, especially where I live, in Holyhead, where a lot of Irish people live, and many more pass through the port. It’s long been a usage in Irish English - and also in the Caribbean - where it’s heard in statements as well as questions:

An Irish example: ‘It’s the greatest fun at all.’ (i.e. it’s wholly the greatest fun)
An American example: ‘Use one statement at all.’ (i.e. only one statement)

OED has citations of this use from 1375.

The usage in negative constructions also has a similarly long history, as in no problem at all and he can’t dance at all, where it means ‘to any degree’. These have entered standard English. And the same point applies to the earliest interrogative use, where the phrase has a range of meanings, such as ‘in any way’ or ‘for any reason’. First citation here is 1566.

Did you go there at all?
Why should people care about football at all?

The usage which my correspondent has noticed developed out of this. Here the phrase is used to modify the question, and has the sense of ‘in any event’ or ‘indeed’. From a pragmatic point of view, we might gloss it as ‘may I ask? or ‘would you say?’. It softens the force of the question. It might have something to do with lack of confidence, as my correspondent thinks, but more likely it will be functioning as a politeness marker. Here are some OED examples (the first one is from James Joyce, in Dubliners):

Is he a priest at all?
Can we see him at all?

And - to my mind the most fascinating one of all - the reduplicated usage:

How is he, at all at all?

I take this to be a selection of two of the range of meanings expressed by the form, for emphasis: ‘How is he indeed, may I ask?’. I think I’ve even heard it used three times, but I can’t remember where.

I don’t know if the usage is increasing among people who don’t have an Irish or Caribbean background, but I wouldn’t be surprised, given the popularity of TV series in which Irish speech has been prominent, such as Father Ted.


Anonymous said...

I hear it here in Canada all the time. Could it be due to the large number of Irish immigrants at all?
Sorry, I couldn't resist the usage!!

DC said...

Wouldn't be at all surprised.

mollymooly said...

"By any chance" is a gloss for this "at all" in questions. I haven't personally noticed this usage in Ireland, so I guess it's less widespread or standard than positive "any more" there.

jfreijser said...

This usage of "at all" reminds me of German "überhaupt", in all its undefinable shades of meaning and usage. It expresses some kind of mental request for phatic acknowledgement, it's a gesture. I am Dutch, and although we have loads of 'little words' incomprehensible to new learners of Dutch, we don't have one for "überhaupt". So we borrowed it ;) It's a nice word.

Phillip Minden said...

I find the the Irish and the American examples and certainly the "empty" use strange, but all in all, "at all" seems more natural than the alternative "even".

"Is he even a priest?" in most cases means "Is he a priest at all (or rather an imposter)?", not "Is he even a priest (not only a deacon as I thought)?"


Guy Deutscher mentions this usage in his Unfolding of Language, and posits it completely losing any sense and just becoming a question signifier, a thousand years into the future, as in: Would you like some bread tall?

Marc said...

In the example of the baker asking "do you want your bread sliced at all?" the listener may have be misinterpreting what the "at all" refers to.

They thought that it modified "slice" (they stopped themselves from saying they'd take it sliced half-way), but to my ear it actually modifies "want".

The question being asked is: "Do you have any desire for your bread to be sliced?"

BenMuch said...

Hi Mr Crystal. I understand you're on hiatus currently, and my thoughts are with you during this time. However, I was wondering if in they New Year there will be more analysis of the use of Twitter?

I'm currently studying for my English Language A'Level, and I have chosen Twitter as my coursework topic. I'm looking at the different purposes behind why an individual would use Twitter, and how it affects the content of their tweets. My teacher pushed me to research you, and I am currently waiting on my copy of 'A Little Book of Language' to arrive in the post.

I have watched some of your interviews and I can safely say I find your views inspiring and accurate.
Basically, if there will be any new Twitter analysis, that would significantly useful. However, do not feel obliged, as I'm sure it's not the biggest issue right now! (Although, if you don't ask, you don't get!) (I'm feeling very cheeky now, apologies!)

Thanks again for the book and blog.
Ben W

DC said...

This last post is off-topic for this thread, but, not knowing the sender's email, I can't send an answer to the question in any other way. You'll find a preliminary analysis of Twitter in a chapter of my Internet Linguistics.

europhile said...

I might have posted this already. If so, apologies. Having Wordpress problems.

I'm reminded of a joke from my childhood (in Dublin).

American visitor: What's the difference between a single yellow line and a double yellow line?

Local: The single yellow line means "no parking at all"; the double yellow line means "no parking at all, at all".

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid said...

I suspect that "at all" in Hiberno-English corresponds heavily to ar bith in Irish, and that "at all at all" is a semi-jocular translation of the emphatic ar chor ar bith. I never hear "at all, at all" in Ireland except as deliberate top-of-the-morning paddy-whackery.
Ar bith generally carries a negative meaning - rud ar bith means "(no)thing at all" - but can also roughly mean "any". I think bith literally and somewhat obsoletely means (the) world.

DC said...

Europhile: great story!

And thanks for this perspective from Irish, Eimear.

Anonymous said...

what linguistic term would you give "at all".... is it a qualifier or an interrogative tag?

DC said...

From a syntactic point of view I suppose it's adverbial in function. Pragmatically it is altering the force of the question - and, from the examples above, in different ways.