Monday, December 17, 2012

At least...

Among the easiest things to smuggle into a conlang from one's native tongue are discourse particles and phrases. I recently had reason to think about the phrase at least, which means at least three distinct things.

First, it is used to set a lower limit on some statement about degree or scale. It is easiest to see with numbers, but has a wide range of uses beyond that. Adding the tag "if not more" is often a good diagnostic test for this use,

  • I saw at least five [if not more].
  • She has invited at least Sarah and James [if not others].
  • He's at least slightly depressed [if not seriously so].

The second sense is evaluative. It selects a particular part of a larger state of affairs and marks it as something the speaker expects everyone to see as positive,

  • At least I got an A-.
  • At least she didn't ask me out.

The last sense I've seen called "rhetorical retreat." You identify the source of your information but step back from committing to its reliability,

  • Mary is at home – at least I think so.
  • Mary is at home – at least that's what Sue said.

If you have a conlang with a single word or phrase for "at least" and it means all three of these things, you've accidentally slurped up whole a little corner of English.

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