Research Seminars

Research seminars

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

Erica Gold and Dan McIntyre (university of huddersfield)

7th February 2018

In the critically-acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, Detectives Jimmy McNulty and William ‘Bunk’ Moreland are investigating old homicide cases. They are revisiting the case of a young woman shot dead in her apartment, and visit the scene of the crime to try and figure out how the woman was killed. The two detectives communicate with each other using only the word fuck and its variants (e.g. motherfucker, fuckity fuck, etc.). However, the viewer is able to understand what McNulty and Bunk mean when they communicate despite using such a restricted set of words.

This paper examines the acoustic properties in the vowel realizations of fuck in combination with pragmatic classifications of the utterances to determine whether the production styles play a role in expressing meaning. All tokens of fuck were categorized using modified pre-existing classifications McEnery & Xiao (2004) and Murphy (2009). Formants and duration were measured for all vowels, and multinomial regression and box plots were used to examine the relationships between meaning and productions.

The results show that the duration of the vowels produced had a strong relationship with the meaning being conveyed – a long duration was associated with disbelief/realization, and shorter durations were more associated with insults/functional uses. Furthermore, our results shed new light on what for linguists is an old problem: how do we make sense of what people say when speakers so very rarely say exactly what they mean? Research in pragmatics suggests that we infer meaning when people break conversational norms (e.g. Grice 1989; Levinson 2000). In the scene from The Wire, while it is clear that the characters are breaking normal conventions, pragmatic accounts of implicature cannot explain how we infer such a range of meaning from such limited vocabulary. Our results suggest that this is because meaning is coming not via conversational implicature but is being conveyed at the phonetic level.


Grice, H. Paul (1975) Logic and conversation. In Cole, Peter and Morgan, Jerry (eds) Syntax and Semantics. Vol. III: Speech Acts, pp. 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Levinson, Stephen (2000) Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McEnery, Anthony & Xiao, Richard. (2004) Swearing in modern British English: the case of “fuck” in the BNC. Language and Literature 13(3): 235-68.

Murphy, Brona (2009) “She's a fucking ticket”: the pragmatics of fuck in Irish English – an age and gender perspective. Corpora 4(1): 85-106.