How do speakers and hearers disambiguate multi-functional words?
The case of well
Well is an exemplary multi-functional word performing pragmatic and syntactic functions. That multi-functionality poses a potential problem: How do hearers in conversation determine which function is actualized and how do speakers project the function actualized? We address both questions examining factors hearers rely on to disambiguate well and the resources speakers deploy to designate well’s function. The study is based on 8-, 9-, and 10-word turns containing well extracted from the British National Corpus for which audio files from the Audio BNC are available. We include duration, measuring well’s durations in Praat. The workflow comprised both qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitatively, all turns were manually inspected and the functions and subfunctions of well were identified. Due to data paucity the quantitative analysis was based only on a broad distinction between syntactic and pragmatic functions. The analysis involved two logistic regression model selection processes, one adopting a hearer, one a speaker perspective. Based on the factors position in the turn, duration and lexical context, our final models indicate that hearers disambiguate the two main functions of well drawing on lexical context and position in the turn while speakers project well’s functions by modulating duration. We propose that Hoey’s (2005) 6th priming hypothesis, concerned with polysemy, can be extended to also include polyfunctionality. Position also suggests a reading in terms of Hoey’s ‘textual colligation’ hypothesis related to a word’s position: particularly in its incarnation as a marker of dispreferreds, pragmatic well is heavily primed to occur turn-initially.
Published online: 04 June 2020
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