A lowkey presentation at American Dialect Society

A couple of summers ago, members of the Socio Lab got into a heated side-discussion about the pragmatics of adverbial lowkey, as in:

  1. I lowkey like pineapple on pizza.
  2. Lowkey I’m hoping the Cavs will lose.

There was debate about whether sentences like this were grammatical for each of us (they mostly weren’t for anyone over 30), and whether the lowkey meant ‘secret’, ‘kinda’, or a whole bunch of other things (here the group split even more finely, undergrads vs grads). Danielle Brown, an undergraduate at the time, decided to investigate further for her senior thesis. She learned that there was no published research on adverbial lowkey, but that undergraduates at two other institutions had conducted some investigations of their own. By coincidence, they were the students of MSU PhD alumni Ai Taniguchi (Carleton University) and Greg Johnson (then at Louisiana State University). Danielle built on their work and fielded a judgment survey to friends and family in her social network. Respondents were presented with sentences like (1) and (2) above, and given a list of possible adverbial substitutions for lowkey such as honestly and discourse particles such as well. Danielle discovered that when lowkey is in sentence-initial position, as in (2) above, people often selected discourse particle substititons. This aligned with an intuition expressed by some students in the lab that low key in sentence-initial position is already becoming semantically bleached, becoming similar to sentence-initial like e.g. Like I’m hoping the Cavs will lose.

After her BA graduation, Danielle teamed up with MA Linguistics student Morgan Momberg to refine her survey and field it to a much larger number of respondents. This time they considered the effect of the ‘popularity’ on the interpretation of lowkey. They presented their results in a talk titled Lowkey opinion or lowkey fact: Exploring the acceptability of sentence-initial lowkey at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in New Orleans in January 2020. As they report in their abstract,

The emerging adverbial use of lowkey has received little attention, especially in sentence-initial position. In a judgment survey (N=52), respondents rated the felicitousness of sentence-initial lowkey in fictional scenarios across three conditions we call ‘unpopular’, ‘popular’ and ‘factual’. As hypothesized, lowkey was most felicitous with unpopular opinions, e.g. Lowkey this lasagna tastes awful in a scenario where everyone eats lasagna, followed by popular opinions e.g. Lowkey this lasagna tastes amazing, and factual statements e.g. Lowkey everyone is eating lasagna. Our survey results suggests possible pragmatic variance in the use of sentence-initial lowkey.

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