Eh and uptalk

Fernando Pereira emailed an anecdote about eh:

Heli-skiing in British Columbia this February, our main guide was a young(ish) guy who grew up in the prairies (Saskatchewan if I recall correctly) and moved a while ago to interior BC (Golden). He had the highest "eh?" density I've ever heard in Canada. He had to talk to the group a lot, to give safety instruction, to direct us about where to go, etc. Pretty much every clause what punctuated by "eh?". It felt as if he used it as a way of asking implicitly whether we were paying attention, and creating opportunities for questions. This doesn't seem to quite fit the categories in Gold's paper, eh?

Well, I wonder if this was a variant of what Gold calls the "narrative eh". Like some (but not all) of the other uses of eh, it seems to have something in common with (some of) the uses of final intonational rises, popularly known as "uptalk".

Although frequent final rises on statements are often perceived as a sign of uncertainty, the only careful study of their distribution that I've seen found something quite different. This was Cynthia McLemore's dissertation ("The pragmatic interpretation of English Intonation", University of Texas, 1991), which documented the use of such rises to signal the presentation of significant new information by institutionally powerful individuals. In her study, the speakers were the leaders of a sorority, and the rises marked announcements of new items in chapter meetings.

Fernando's ski guide was also in an institutionally powerful position, and it sounds like he may have been using eh in a somewhat similar way, to command attention and involvement on the part of his listeners. An empirical study of the distribution of narrative eh might confirm this.

If so, there's a pattern here worth noting. Robin Lakoff's 1975 account of tag questions, based on her introspective judgments, was that such tags "are associated with a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker." But when Cameron et al. 1988 looked at the distribution of tag questions in nine hours of unscripted broadcast talk, they found that such tags were used only by the participants that they characterized as "powerful" -- in other words, those "institutionally responsible for the conduct of the talk". These were doctors as opposed to patients, teachers as opposed to students, talk show hosts as opposed to guests. [See this post on Gender and Tags for more details.]

The facts about final rises are similar. Contrary to the frequent assertion that such rises express uncertainty, McLemore found that in certain settings they can mark the novelty of the information presented and the standing of the speaker to command attention to it. She also found final rises used in other ways, just as there are other uses for tag questions (and for eh), and she offered a theory about why intonational forms seem to have such different meanings in different contexts of use.

A crucial thing in all cases is to look carefully at the facts -- the distribution of the forms in question in an appropriately controlled collection of natural speech -- rather than to rely only on introspective judgments, which are often remarkably far from the truth.