How Long Does it Take to Say ‘Well’? Evidence from the Audio BNC

  • Christoph RühlemannEmail author
Original Paper


This paper reports on an acoustic analysis of ‘well’ in conversation, building on recent attempts at examining the vocal realization of the marker (e.g., Aijmer in Understanding pragmatic markers. A variational pragmatic approach. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2013; Romero-Trillo in Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory, 2018). ‘Well’ is a prime example of a highly multi-functional item performing a large number of distinct pragmatic and syntactic functions. The aim of the study is to test what I call, following Hoey (Lexical priming. A new theory of words and language. Routledge, London/New York, 2005), the ‘priming hypothesis’ suggesting that the syntactic and the pragmatic functions of ‘well’ are distinguishable on acoustic grounds, specifically by the duration they have in conversational speaking turns. The data examined include a subset of 9-word turns extracted from the Audio BNC (Coleman et al. in Audio BNC: the audio edition of the Spoken British National Corpus. Phonetics Laboratory, University of Oxford, Oxford, 2012) of which the durations of more than 300 tokens of ‘well’ were measured in Praat, an acoustic analysis software (Boersma and Weenink in Praat: doing phonetics by computer [Computer program],, 2012). The results mostly confirm the priming hypothesis: syntactic ‘well’ has significantly longer duration than pragmatic ‘well’. In the concluding sections I discuss this result with a view to the larger question as to how discourse duration enters into the range of factors, including not only duration but also collocation and position in the turn, that hearers in conversation draw on in order to disambiguate the distinct uses of ‘well’. The study also offers intriguing implications for the theory of priming (Hoey in Lexical priming. A new theory of words and language. Routledge, London/New York, 2005), suggesting the possibility that polysemous words are not only primed for certain verbal contexts but also for certain properties pertaining to the non-verbal modalities.


Pragmatic markers Well Duration Praat Disambiguation 


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Conflict of interest

The author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Phiilipps-University MarburgMarburgGermany

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