What the /fʌk/? An acoustic-pragmatic analysis of implicated meaning in a scene from The Wire

Erica Gold, Daniel McIntyre

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


Our chapter has demonstrated the value of segmental, acoustic phonetic analysis in determining the likely pragmatic functions of utterances and the implicatures that arise from them. Although phonetics is on occasion combined with pragmatic analysis, as we have noted, this tends to be at the suprasegmental level (as in Culpeper et al., 2003 and Ogden, 2006). Our analysis highlights the importance of segmental features to meaning. Furthermore, since our results indicate which segmental features associate with which functional categories, we are also able to suggest a mechanism for calculating implicated meaning in cases of indeterminacy, thereby solving a problem with theoretical approaches to this area of pragmatics. For example, in the case of our data, a fuck production with a long /Λ/ duration is more likely to express disbelief than to function as an insult, and this may well place limits on the implicatures that might be reasonably derived from the utterance in question. To this end, we would argue that our acoustic approach can be used to augment Gricean and neo-Gricean accounts of how pragmatic meaning is conveyed. Indeed, we would argue strongly that such approaches need to take account of insights from phonetics, for a number of reasons. Hearers use the full range of linguistic data available to them when interpreting utterances, and this includes information conveyed on the phonetic level. We should, then, be using the full range of linguistic tools available to us as analysts in order to account for speaker meaning. If we do not, we run the risk of ignoring (albeit unintentionally) significant stylistic choices on the part of speakers. Consequently, it would seem negligent not to build phonetics into theoretical frameworks that account for how implicated meaning is generated. We need to consider how things are said just as much as what is said. What this points towards is the importance of broad intradisciplinarity in linguistics and ensuring that boundaries between sub-disciplines (such as phonetics and pragmatics) are seen as fuzzy rather than discrete. Our analysis is, of course, of "literary" data; that is, a scene from a drama. We maintain that this does not lessen its value to pragmatics generally. Sinclair (2004: p. 51), for instance, is clear that literature should be seen as "language in use", making the point that any theoretical approach to language must be able to account for language use in literary texts as well as other types of naturallyoccurring data. McIntyre and Bousfield (2017) also argue for the value of fiction as a data source, on the grounds that recent multidimensional analyses of fictional and naturally-occurring speech (e.g. Quaglio, 2009) have demonstrated a significant degree of similarity between the two. Literary data such as the scene from The Wire provide ideal test cases for experimental pragmatic-acoustic work, since they simulate both the ordinary and the creative elements of everyday conversations (as noted by Carter, 2004, for instance). The analysis of language data from fiction has much to contribute to pragmatics and to linguistics generally. Insights from experimental research on fiction can also be applied to realworld problems. For example, our results (and pragmatic-acoustic results more generally) have implications beyond improvements in the analysis of implicated meaning. First, the results may be of interest to speech and language therapists working with individuals who present with pragmatic impairments (e.g. those with autism spectrum disorder [ASD]), who use different techniques to help them understand everyday situations. Second, there is a clear application for such research in the forensic speech science field, where threats and remorse may be called into question in the courtroom. The phonetic-pragmatic work carried out by Watt et al. (2013) and Tompkinson et al. (2016) on threat speech looks at cues in the speech signal that influence a listener's assessment of threatening utterances. Similarly, the work by Hippey and Gold (2017) considers the ability of lay-listeners to perceive remorse in acted apologies to fictional victims. In these types of forensic research, the pragmatic-acoustic crossover is vital to furthering our understanding of the pivotal role phonetics can play in implicated meaning. What we hope to have demonstrated in this chapter is the significance of acoustic elements in the interpretation of utterances; and, consequently, the importance of taking account of insights from phonetics in the development of pragmatic theories. At the core of pragmatics is the idea that what speakers mean often goes beyond what their words might be taken literally to convey. In determining the implicatures that arise in such cases, hearers rely on a range of linguistic, paralinguistic and non-linguistic information. As we have shown, acoustic phenomena play a significant role in controlling the functions that particular usages might be taken to have, and the implicatures that arise as a consequence. Our case study of one scene from The Wire demonstrates a method for investigating this issue and indicates the potential for using literary data in pragmatic research.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPragmatics and Literature
EditorsSiobhan Chapman, Billy Clark
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9789027261922
ISBN (Print)9789027204448
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019

Publication series

NameLinguistic Approaches to Literature
PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
ISSN (Print)1569-3112


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