Victor Mair recently told me about someone who began a letter to him in a way that struck him as odd:
"I actually have a pseudo linguistics question for you about the title of the Manchu emperor."
Victor was surprised by this use of actually. He added:
The next day, my sister from Seattle, who was visiting us in Swarthmore after attending the inauguration in DC, happened to complain about this very usage of "actually" among our nieces and nephews and their friends (when they are expressing an opinion).
Actually, these two senses of actually are worth distinguishing. And this is not just my opinion — I'm relying on the analysis in Uta Lenk's 1998 dissertation, Marking Discourse Coherence: Functions of Discourse Markers in Spoken English.
Lenk starts by distinguishing "propositional" uses of actually, which contribute something to the content of the proposition being expressed, from "discourse marker" uses, which instead serve to indicate the relationship of the utterance to the surrounding discourse. In the conversational corpora that she examined, she found that about half of the instances of actually were propositional and half were discourse markers.
In Lenk's analysis, actually has a number of different propositional senses: "to indicate that a situation exists or happened, or to emphasize that it is true or correct"; as a way to indicate surprise; and simply as an intensifier.
She identifies three different "discourse marker" uses: with objections; as an opinion marker; and to introduce a topic shift.
For marking objections, she quotes Tognini-Bonelli (1993) that actually
is probably the most common device available to a speaker who wishes to make his/her own perspective stand out with respect to the general, and more common, consensus-based view, or to other preceding textual claims or events. Because of this, the use of actually is also a very common way of implicitly acknowledging what has gone on before, that is paying lip-service either to another participant's contribution or to one's own stated position before going on to contradict it or correct it in some way.
With respect to actually as an opinion marker, Lenk notes that
When looking at the conversations, it turns out that actually is used not only when somebody is expressing an opinion "that had not been expected in a polite way", but in situations where people express personal opinions in general. Thus actually does not necessarily mark the fact that an unexpected opinion is being expressed politely, but rather that now some personal opinion is being expressed at all.
And she motivates the "topic shift" function of actually with an example that is rather like Victor's:
The third discourse marker function of actually is located on a higher structural level in the discourse than the other two are, and signals the introduction of a new topic into the conversation.
The function of actually as a marker of topic shift of change is clearly recognizable in instances where it appears initially in the turn of a person who had not been speaking before and whose contribution introduces a new topic or shifts the old topic.
She quotes an example from her corpus where "speaker B uses actually in the very early phase of a telephone conversation even prior to self-identification". In somewhat simplified typography, her transcription of this conversation is:
B: actually it's me
A: hello Karen
As she explains:
All three discourse marker functions [opinion, contradiction, new topic] can be taken to have a common core meaning of 'stating something in an unexpected way, manner or position'.
The common core function of actually as a discourse marker presumably stems from the etymology of the word, which is a derivation from the word actual with the meaning 'existing in act or fact; real' (SOED 23). This would make the meaning of the discourse marker a signal that upgrades the following opinion — be it a mere statement or a full-blown contradiction — into a 'fact of reality'. As a marker of topic shift, actually marks the upcoming topic as 'more real, more acute, more relevant than the prior topic' in the speaker's mind at that particular moment.
So on Lenk's analysis, Victor's correspondent was using actually to (redundantly) mark a new topic and indeed a new conversation; and Victor's sister is also correct that actually is often used to mark the expression of an opinion; but these two things, though related through their common historical relation to the concept of "existing in act or fact", are not quite the same.
Changing the topic and expressing an opinion at the same time, let me note that Lenk's dissertation, published in 1998 by Gunter Narr Verlag, is actually now out of print and not easy to find — abebooks.com says "We're sorry, no results were found", for example. Isn't it past time for our field to abandon the increasingly empty gesture of publishing excellent works in ways that leave them orphaned within a decade, and instead to deposit digital copies in web-accessible archives?
And finally, let me know that the term discourse marker was introduced into the field by none other than frequent LL poster Arnold Zwicky ("Clitics and particles", Language 61(2): 283-305, 1985):
5. DISCOURSE MARKERS IN ENGLISH (AND IN GENERAL). Within the great collection of things that have been labeled 'particles', we find at least one grammatically significant class of items, in English and in languages generally. These have been variously termed 'discourse particles' and 'interjections'; here I will call them 'discourse markers'.7 On the grounds of distribution, prosody, and meaning, discourse markers can be seen to form a class.
7 My use of the term 'discourse particles' (following Schourup 1983) in earlier versions of this article — which is, after all, designed to demonstrate that there is no unified class comprising the things that have been called 'particles' — was perhaps infelicitous. I have now opted for terminology that entirely avoids 'particle' as (any part of) a technical expression.
Actually, in that paper Arnold used "discourse marker" for things like "(certain instances of) well, hey, okay, oh, yes, like, y'know, no, uh, now, say, why, look, listen, and please", rather than for discourse-related adverbials like actually; but the field has decided it's useful to extend the term on the grounds of meaning rather than restricting it on the basis of distribution and prosody.
Post-finally, I can't resist quoting a nice use of phrase-final actually as an intensifier, from a Roz Chast cartoon illustrating "The Berlitz Guide to Parent-Teacher Conferences":
|Marches to a different drummer.||Nuts.|
|Needs to brush up on his people skills.||Homicidal.|
|Creative.||None too bright.|
|Very creative.||A moron, actually.|
|She's a riot!||I can't stand her.|
|He's doing just fine.||What's your kid's name again?|
Actually is actually very common in New Yorker cartoon text.