A HELLA New Specifier*

Rachelle Waksler
San Francisco State University

A new specifier, HELLA, is found in the discourse of young speakers in the San Francisco Bay Area, as seen in (1–2). (All data are naturally occurring tokens collected in SF over the past two years.)

(1)My dad was hella mad.
(2)It hella stinks in this bus.

Surprisingly, HELLA also appears to quantify both mass and count nouns, as in (3–4), respectively:

(3)I bought hella cat food last week and it's all gone now!
(4)Dude, there were hella freaks at the Civic Center last night.

This squib documents the distribution of HELLA in this speech community, (or HECKA, for those young speakers wanting to be more polite) and (very) briefly examines its syntactic and funtional properties.

1 Syntax of HELLA

HELLA appears as specifier of a wide variety of syntactic categories: A', V', I', Q', N'. Examples of HELLA's syntactic distribution are provided below.

Before A'

(5)Girl, I'm gonna be hella late to class.

Before V'

(6)Yeah, they were hella choppin' it up.
(choppin' it up = happy, enthusiastic converstation)

Before I'

(7)(about Gomez on The Addams Family saying "Cara mia")
I hella didn't know what he said for so long.

Before Q'

(8)You have hella too many CDs that you don't even listen to!

Before N'

(9)I tried on hella pairs of shoes, but of course I bought the first ones I tried on.

This range makes HELLA's distribution broader than any single specifier previously seen in English. (E.g., Compare very or really with HELLA in examples (1–9).) HELLA has the distribution of an intensifier, with the addition that it can precede N' to give the interpretation of a large number or amount of the NP it modifies.

Though HELLA serves to quantify NPs in examples like (3), (4) and (8), it does not behave like other quantifiers in the language. First, of course, quantifiers do not modify the wide range of constituents that HELLA modifies. Second, quantifiers are usually restricted to specific number or countability properties. For example, much modifies only mass nouns (much water, *much cat, *much cats), many and several modify only plural count nouns (several cats, many cats, *several cat, *several water, *many cat, *many water), each modifies only singular count nouns (each cat, *each cats, *each cats). HELLA modifies mass nouns (as shown in (3)), plural count nouns (as in (4)), and singular count nouns, as in (10) below:

(10)There's been hella crackdown on pharmacists.

Finally, unlike quantifiers, HELLA does not appear before a determiner, (with or without of). Hella contrasts with all, many, each, and several below:

(11)  He's played hella games already.
(11')* He's played hella (of) the games already.
(12)  He's played all/many/each/several of the games already.

2 Function of HELLA

I hypothesize that HELLA indicates a large proportion of the set denoted by the constituent it modifies. This analysis yields an interpretation as an intensifier or quantifier, depending on the denotation of the set it modifies. Syntactically, HELLA is a specifier of the Intensifier category, a more generalized intensifier than previously documented in English.


* This squib is a condensed version of a paper presented at the International Linguistics Association Conference, Georgetown University, April 8, 2000. I would like to thank my Intro Linguistics 420 students, especially Amy Gaugran, for their assistance in collecting hella data. [Back]

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