Annals of uptalk: the python wrestler

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A New York Times Room for Debate piece on "Killing Pythons, and Regulating Them" (3/5/2010) supplies another piece of anecdata for my on-going quest to document the North American varieties of uptalk. This one is from the sound track of a YouTube video about a python wrangler in central Florida.

At the beginning, there's a passage with a long sequence of final rises, ending with a final fall:

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so we're going to go see if we can find this guy /
uh there's a main area that's he's been seen over and over again /
and usually with pythons /
they stay in one area /
they're- they are territorial /
unless it comes time /
for breeding season /
so I've been out there once before /
and now we're going to go out again /
and see what we find.

After he wades out into the swamp and wrestles the python into submission, his explanation also starts with a couple of final-rising declaratives. Then for comparison, we get some yes-no questions, which are also rising — in pretty much the same way as the statements, though ending a bit higher. And then he ends the segment with a fall again.

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that was a burmese python /
very mad, very angry snake /
have you seen my face? /
and look how much he has on me? /
you see that? /
that's from that little piece
right there.

As I've noted with respect to other examples in the past, there's no reason to think that these final rises are always (or often, or perhaps ever) indications of feminine insecurity and need for reassurance.

[Update -- Ben Zimmer notes another set of examples, in Terry Gross's Fresh Air interview with William Hurt (audio here, transcript here). For instance, here is Hurt's description of his role in The Yellow Handkerchief:

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um
my character is blue collar /
um
originally from probably Kentucky /
uh ran into trouble /
um
works as a steam-fitter /
on oil rigs /
and um
moved to Louisiana after he ran into drug trouble /
tried to make a new life / met someone, fell in love with them /-
got into an accidental bit of trouble which put him in prison for a long time and he takes a road trip
with some young people after he gets out.

Again, a series of final rises, ending with a few transitional phrases and ending low. Hurt uses similar patterns now and then elsewhere in this interview, e.g.

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um and I spent one night in- in- in maximum security there /
uh I think I'm the only person who electively has done that /
I think someone else tried to but
screamed and gave up at midnight /
um I spoke with every member on that- on that row /
um who's incarcerated in an eight foot by four foot cell twenty three hours a day for the rest of their lives /

But it's by no means his default approach -- compare this interview with Chuck The Movie Guy.

Nor do other Americans generally use non-terminal rises. There are none, for example, in the long  monologue attributed to the Pentagon shooter John Patrick Bedell, who uses final falls throughout, e.g.

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The door is open for studies of who (among speakers of North American English) actually uses which kinds of final rises when.]



16 Comments

  1. Karen said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    It often sounds like an "I'm not finished talking yet" signal to me.

    [(myl) That's certainly one of the traditional functions of final rises. But a systematic pattern of rise, rise, rise, ... , rise, fall is by no means the norm in all varieties of American English, or in all circumstances (as far as I know) for any variety.]

  2. Bobbie said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    The first passage sounds like a very long run-on sentence in which the speaker is describing each step of the way to the listener. Somehow the final rises don't sound "girly" at all.

    [(myl) But I haven't been able to find any phonetic difference between final rises that "sound 'girly'" and final rises that don't. (There are overall sex differences in pitch range, which can be exaggerated for effect, but that's a completely different matter.)

    So far, it seems to me that what's going on is an overall evaluation of the content, the context, and the character of the person speaking. The rises are the same.

    I could be wrong, but I'd like to see some evidence.]

  3. Jason said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Karen: if by "'I'm not finished talking yet" signal" (and that isn't the distress call for a superhero whose superpower is diarrhea of the mouth) you mean the fall-rise intonation found at the end of clauses to signal 'more talk is coming', I think you're right! But I still have to think about what kind of superhero would employ your signal.

  4. Jason said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    I think Mark's point is that uptalk or a rising intonation is quickly replacing a fall-rise pattern in marking an unfinished turn in talk in a variety of dialects, and that pegging this change in one sex or giving some psychobabble explanation that it shows 'weakness' is easily dismissed by this example of a Python Wrangler. Personally, I think this guy is a sissy to speak with uptalk AND to wrestle snakes. Real men have a more satisfying fall-rise pattern to mark preposed adverbial clauses and to continue a turn in turn-taking, and they wrestle alligators. Or Killer Whales. (Too soon?) Or that most dangerous of prey, Man. "Wait," says a teenager, "men wrestling men is gay." But in which sense of gay, O teenager? Ah, let's leave that before somebody uses the 'R' word…

  5. John said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    I agree with Karen and Bobbie. Is there a difference in total amount of pitch rise between these and the "girlie" type? Or maybe a change in how far from the end of the sentence they start?

    [(myl) Maybe. Those are plausible speculations, and it's certainly true that individual examples vary both in both timing and extent, both among final rises used by some young American women and final rise used by others. But comparison of my modest collection of examples (see the quotes from some fifth-grade girls here) doesn't show any categorical overall difference.

    A real test would require examination of material from dozens of speakers, collected under somewhat controlled conditions. There might well be statistical differences, either in frequency of use or in the distribution of phonetic values -- though there also might not be. One thing I'm sure of, though, is that this is not just something that only young women (or only young people in general) do.]

    Interesting.

  6. mollymooly said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    "I could be wrong, but I'd like to see some evidence."

    That has the makings of a bestselling T-shirt slogan.

  7. Faber said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    Another little bit of anecdata.

    I listened to an interview with the American engineer Mary Lou Jepsen, the former CTO of OLPC and now CEO of Pixel Qi, a while back.

    http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Desktops-and-Notebooks/The-Technology-of-the-OLPCs-XO-Laptop/

    She used uptalk a lot (in my recollection) during a lengthy, highly technical discussion of a new type of computer screen she developed for the project and other technical issues with the design of the laptop. My impression was that she was using it kind of like a tag question – understand? got that? My impression was also that the interviewer was not following very well at all. (This may have prompted it?)

    She doesn't do this in formal presentations.

  8. Matthew Kehrt said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    I'm a 26 year old male with two early twenties sisters. All of us do this all the time, and my internal understanding of it is similar to Faber. I feel like I am implicitly asking people if they are still following me or if they believe what I've told them. This tends to happen more often when telling lengthy stories (although there may be some confirmation bias in my memories).

  9. Jay Livingston said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

    Obama, too, seems to use the rise at the end of a phrase to indicate that the sentence or thought hasn't ended. Here he is at the health care summit, about 45 seconds into this clip.

    I’ve looked very carefully at John Boehner’s plan/
    that he put forward/
    That’s been put out there.
    Tom Coburn and Senator Burr’s plan/
    That’s been put out there.
    Paul Ryan has discussed some of the issues surrounding Medicare/
    I’ve looked at those very carefully/

    [(myl) "Non-terminal rises" are fairly common, though not everyone uses them, and those who use them don't use them all the time. But I'd really like to know whether these, and the final rises used in reciting lists, and the final rises often used on yes-no questions, and the final rises perceived as uptalk, and the final rises commonly used in "Urban North British" dialects, etc., are the same or not.

    In the particular speech that you cite, Obama uses non-terminal rises occasionally but not always. I believe (though I haven't counted) that phrase-final rises are more common in this address than is usual for him -- if this is true, is it because he's trying to reach out to his audience? or because he's got a half-hostile audience? ]

  10. Rubrick said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    I wonder if the difference between uptalk percieved as "girly" and that which isn't might possibly lie not in the pitch contours themselves, but in the amplitudes associated with them.

    Even more, though, I wonder if there's a qualitative difference which is just too subtle for the analytical tools Mark's applied so far to pick up. It would be interesting to know whether a neural net could be trained to tell the difference (i.e., match what humans would vote as "girly/insecure" or "not"). You'd have to be very careful to avoid the tank effect, though. I suspect a neural net would be pretty good at telling the difference between William Hurt and his daughters, uptalk or no.

    (Come to think of it, has anyone in fact developed a neural-net based gaydar?)

  11. Janice in GA said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    I've been listening to the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast from tor.com. One of the hosts uses this inflection a LOT.

    It kinda drives me nuts.

  12. Jessi said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    Bob Boilen of NPR is another. It annoys me too.

  13. Alexander said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Impressionistically, one thing that makes these audio clips not sound "girly" is the relatively staccato delivery of the final melody ("py . thon?"). Things would feel different with much more portamento, I would imagine.

  14. krogerfoot said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    The Pentagon shooter guy is obviously reading his bit – wouldn't that affect the intonation enough to invalidate the comparison?

    [(myl) If it were true that people who are reading things never use phrase-final rises, that would be interesting. Unfortunately, it isn't true.]

    I also would have thought the other samples were just variations on open-ended lists (signaling, I've got more examples coming, so don't interrupt). In particular, the python-wrestling guy sounds like he's narrating action for a listening audience, so he avoids sentence-final indicators as long as he thinks something else cool is about to happen. Is this too crude an analysis?

    [(myl) Like a lot of analyses, this seems plausible (although "examples" doesn't really cover the instances given here -- they aren't lists of noun phrases). But the idea that final rises signal "not the end" doesn't tell us why they're typically used in a subset (often a small subset) of nonterminal clauses -- check out the Obama speech cited above, for example, or the Richard Powers interview discussed here.]

    Then again, I wrestle hamsters, am dead butch right through the floor, and end every utterance like a meaty fist coming down on a conference room table, so of course my analysis is crude.

  15. Jim F said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    For some reason I associate this intonation with a military/police authoritative recitation of facts — the rising intonation somehow giving the recitation an air of detachment. This especially struck me with the python example. (But maybe I'm totally off base.)

  16. Uptalk and feminine insecurity | Sarah Davies said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    [...] Log had a post last week on uptalk using this YouTube video as an [...]

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