There has been a recent popularization over the questionable use of the word 'literally' as an intensifier rather than as a marker of non-figurative, especially since it seems to be used non-literally by well-respected modern authors. There is a lot of evidence that it has been used non-literally literally for centuries.

"Literal", in English, is primarily used to imply 'exactly as spoken/written' so that when something is said that sounds like hyperbole, it will be taken as truthful rather than exaggerated.

But that situation also is semantically ambiguous in that things could seem truly exaggerated. And then, if one didn't know otherwise, the term 'literally' could be understood as an intensifier, and therefore taken in a non-literal manner.

It seems to me that there is nothing special about 'literal' in English that it should be the only one to have such ambiguity leading to semantic drift.

  • The Romance languages all have a similar sounding word with base 'literal-' and it is just as opaque (no conscious implication of 'verbatim' or 'as written/read').
  • The Germanic languages all have variants of 'buchstäblich' or 'wörtlich' which sound a little closer to 'word for word'.
  • Similarly, Slavic uses cognates of either 'bukvalno' or 'doslownie'
  • Chinese has 字面, meaning (closely) 'by character'. This meaning seems transparent to me (and therefore unlikely to lead to drift).

But as figurative meanings don't even need phonetic changes to help them become figurative, I wonder if there are similar figurative uses of the word or phrase corresponding to 'literal' in other languages.

Is there any evidence that the corresponding terms for 'literal' in non-English languages have similar figurative uses?

  • Esperantists whose native language is other than English would be the ideal respondents to this question. This question, posed in Esperanto, would be ideal for the forum section of the "LERNU!" website: lernu.net/eo/forumo May 13 '17 at 11:54
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    @EsperantoSpeaker1 What makes esperanto speakers so special in this regard more so than others?
    – Mitch
    May 13 '17 at 15:30
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    @EsperantoSpeaker1 As interesting as that is, that's not a particularly convincing argument. How would the simple existence of an international auxiliary language say anything about metaphorical uses of terms in languages, especially ones that talk about concepts related to metaphor (or rather the lack thereof).
    – Mitch
    May 14 '17 at 22:32
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    OK, I'll bite. What's so special about Esperanto? Why not Hebrew? Or Toki Pona? I think the only possible relevance of Esperanto is examples of non-literal use of the corresponding term for 'literal' or some explanation as to why it would be unlikely to appear non-literally (of course, such an explanation probably works equally well for any language where meaning is ... used).
    – Mitch
    May 15 '17 at 13:06
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    I have cross posted this to German.SE where I got a positive answer. I will attempt at other language specific sites.
    – Mitch
    May 17 '17 at 15:30

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