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:
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 email@example.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!