Wow…?

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Robert Coren, in a comment on "X là là", 7/7/2011:

Surely the various shades of meaning of such exclamations are conveyed as much or more by tone of voice than by choice of vowel. I can certainly imagine saying "wow" to mean "That's really amazingly beautiful", and also saying "wow" to mean "Oh, that sounds really bad, I hope it gets better soon", and there being no doubt in my hearers' minds which one I meant.

The OED glosses wow as "1. An exclamation, variously expressing aversion, surprise or admiration, sorrow or commiseration, or mere asseveration". This seems about right to me for current American usage, although the OED indicates that this sense is "Chiefly Sc[ottish]", and says that the version "In general use" is "Now chiefly expressing astonishment or admiration".

Anyhow, Robert asserts that he can perform wow so as to communicate clearly a positive or negative evaluation of his hearers' situation.

I don't have access to his performances, but I can find many contextualized examples of "wow" in telephone conversations published by the LDC — 19,478 of them, to be precise. This offers us a chance to get an idea of how clearly wow's affective valence is typically communicated in modern American English.

Here are 10 examples selected more or less at random from the first couple of pages of hits:

1.

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2.

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3.

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4.

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5.

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6.

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7.

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8.

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9.

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10,

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In general the intensity of a feeling can be separated from its content.  So for each of the ten wows, judge its intensity and its "valence" (positive vs. negative evaluation) separately, on a scale of 1 to 7.

"Negative valence" reactions would be roughly equivalent to (un-ironic) expressions like "what a shame!", "that's awful", "bummer", etc. "Positive valence" reactions would be roughly equivalent to (un-ironic) expressions like "nice", "beautiful", "impressive", etc. In all cases, we're talking about the valence of an appropriate evaluation of the state of affairs under discussion.

On the intensity dimension, the most low-key reaction would be 1, and the most impassioned reaction would be 7. On the valence dimension, the most negative evaluation would 1; the most positive evaluation would be 7.

Thus your response should consist of 10 pairs of numbers, each between 1 and 7 inclusive.

(Of course there are more than two emotional and attitudinal dimensions here — anger and disgust are different though both negative, for example — and feelings have propositional aspects, so that anger usually has an object and a cause, rather than being an undirected quantity like electrical charge. But let's take this one step at a time…)

Send your answer by email to languagelogpoll@gmail.com by midnight on Monday, July 18 (Philadelphia time), after which I'll post the contexts, the poll results, and some commentary. Meanwhile, I'm going to leave comments open, but please don't discuss any of your answers, or comment on individual audio clips.

English native speakers only, please!

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20 Comments »

  1. Robert S. Porter said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    To gain more responses I would have recommended using a form instead of relying on emails. Google documents makes this basically pain free.

  2. Outis said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

    With some of my friends, we have a running joke on how pretty much everything can be expressed by the word "putain". In fact somebody made a video on YouTube about this, although I can't seem to find that now.

    In my own exercizes with putain, I've learned that, indeed, many sentiments can be expressed with this one simple word. But the meaning is not simply encoded in the tone, but also depends heavily on context, timing, facial expression and gesture, and other non-verbal queues.

  3. Jethro said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    Outis, I believe you are referring to this YouTube video: Learn French in One Word http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSeaDQ6sPs0

  4. Aaron Toivo said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    I'm confused by your instructions. I get the intensity rating, but you said the valence should also be rated on a 1-7 scale and did not specify which end of that scale goes with which valence, unless I'm missing something here (which is very possible).

  5. Rubrick said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    Aaron: paragraph 3 after the clips explains the scale mappings.

  6. Jangari said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    Aaron:

    On the valence dimension, the most negative evaluation would 1; the most positive evaluation would be 7.

  7. Colin Reid said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    @Outis: In the Phillippines, wealthy English or Spanish-speaking people are called 'konyos', because 'coño' was clearly the Spaniards' favourite word in the colonial era. I wonder if there's a country where the local word for Francophone people is derived from 'putain' in the same way?

    See also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7sf2O90eu4

  8. Aaron Toivo said,

    July 17, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

    Thanks. Not my first cognitive malfunction of the day, alas.

    Looking forward to the results. High-exposure blogs and sites like LL have great potential for accomplishing quick-and-dirty science, as with XKCD's impressive color survey last year; I could wish this were exploited more often.

  9. Dan M. said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 2:02 am

    It would be interesting to compare the results of this survey with an analogous survey of decontextualized instances of some word whose semantics are considered to always have the same valance, such as "wonderful".

    [(myl) See here.]

    Previous LL posts have claimed that listeners are fooling themselves in thinking they can tell what valence "wow" has out of context. While I find that easily believable (and expect to have confirm by this experiment here), I'm inclined to guess that listeners do almost as badly with "wonderful".

    If that turns out true, then does it mean anything to say that we can't tell the sense of "wow", if we can't even tell the sense of something that's only got one denotational sense?

  10. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 3:22 am

    Just a question about the scales: are the 1-7 supposed to be the range of these 10 samples (i.e. there should be a 1 and a 7 in each series)?

  11. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    I found this very difficult.

    Associating the clips with hypothetical scenarios is easy enough. For example, one clip (not saying which) could easily be the reaction to summarising the latest LL post to someone not interested in linguistics.

    Isolating intensity and valence, and assigning numbers to each, was very challenging and I was never satisfied. In fact, I know that the email I've submitted is inconsistent (i.e. I've contradicted myself), but no matter, just goes to show how ambiguous it is.

    One thing I found frustrating: Let's say clip 1 had intensity 2 and valence 3 (that this is hypothetical should be obvious). Then if I wanted to listen to that clip again, to confirm my scores, I often found myself listening to clip 2 or 3 by mistake – i.e. after reading "clip 1 intensity 2 valence 3" in my notes, my brain put one of the scores into working memory when I wanted the clip number. This happened a lot.

    (FWIW, aspergers diagnosed. Just for the record.)

  12. Nick Lamb said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    I attempted the exercise, but the lousy quality of the clips made it impossible for me to concentrate on what's being said. I know these are recordings from telephone conversations, and I think I understand why telephone conversations were chosen (the participants aren't privy to any short term shared context that we as observers don't have too) but it seems like this makes it a slightly unfair test, I can't believe these calls sounded so awful live, unless perhaps all these samples are from people saying "Wow, this line is really bad".

  13. Alex Boulton said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    Does anyone remember that John & Marcia recording? Can't find a Youtube link, unfortunately.

  14. Ed said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    one possibility not mentioned in the post, although i think this is purely ideolectal: i have an acquaintance who somehow took to using "(oh) wow" as a neutral "i'm listening" discourse marker, like "uh-huh" or "yeah". i don't see her that often, and when i do, it always takes a few moments to remember that she's neither incredulous nor patronizing, but just saying "wow" over and over to indicate that it's still my turn in the dialogue.

  15. Dan M. said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    Thanks MYL, that is the post I was thinking of, though I'd clearly forgotten that it included my proposed experiment.

    But I'm still confused as to what can be concluded from this experiment given how poorly we performed on the last one.

    [(myl) Actually, some very interesting patterns are emerging! I'll explain tomorrow...]

  16. Robert Coren said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    I would have better expressed what I meant if I had said "tone of voice, facial expression, and body language".

  17. Mark F. said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    I think ones like this would be easier if irony were treated as if meant sincerely. Or, put differently, it makes sense to separate the question of whether the unironic valence of "wow" can be determined from how it sounds, from that of whether the person is being ironic.

    Dan M, I really suspect a video clip of the the same utterances would be almost as hard. There are definitely things I could be told that would result in a visibly crestfallen "wow", but a lot of things that I do have opinions about just don't move my emotional needle enough against the background level of, say, my enjoyment (or otherwise) of being with whoever I'm talking to.

  18. Viktor said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    English isn't my first language, but I tried anyhow. I will just say that I found it incredibly hard and my scores are very bland. I will have to use the official results as the One True Understanding of English, and adjust my sensibilities appropriately.

  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

    To Alex Boulton: Stan Freberg's "John and Marsha", here. But note that the interpretation of individual occurrences depends on the context of the dialogue.

  20. Brad D said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

    I'm surprised no one has brought up the multifarious uses of the word "dude" as described by Rob Schneider: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77v_Q0mhbZU

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