What does “Well” mean? Or, more specifically, what does ‘Well’ mean when it’s used as the first word in response to so-called ‘Wh-questions’ (which, what, who, whom, whose, where, whence, whither, when, why, whynot, wherefore, whatever etc. etc.)? Professor Gene H. Lerner and Professor Emanuel A. Schegloff offer an explanation in the April 2009 issue of the journal Research on Language & Social Interaction.
“We show that these well-prefaces operate as general alerts that indicate nonstraightforwardness in responding …”
A set of ten real-world transcriptions of conversations (featuring ‘well’s) provided the research material – analysis of which showed a complex and subtle variety of functions for ‘well’. In summary, say the professors –
“… the upshot of the present article is that turn-initial well in response turns in unipolar or asymmetrical alternatives sequence types alerts the recipient to monitor for the way in which it will or may be nonstraightforward.”
The full paper can be found here : ‘Beginning to Respond: Well-Prefaced Responses to Wh-Questions’
The recordings are available here [Note: possible Flashblock™ incompatibility]
Bonus 1: (from professor Schegloff) The many meaning(s) of “Uh(m)”s
Bonus 2: (from professor Lerner) a video of his Morris Dancing team in action.
Suggestion 1: (for future research)
The use of ‘Well’ in response to non-wh-questions was not examined. Examples :
• “I hope you like crab?” “Well …”
• “Are you sure?” “Well …”
• “Is that the best you can come up with?” “Well …”
Suggestion 2: (for future research)
• The application of the ‘Extended Well’ ( as in: “W e l l . . .”) has not, as yet, been explored in the literature.