“Uptalk” in the OED

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The latest quarterly update to the online Oxford English Dictionary includes a metalinguistic term all too familiar to Language Log readers: uptalk, defined as “a manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with rising intonation at the end, a type of intonation more typically associated with questions.” It’s high time that the OED created an entry for the word, given that it has had a significant media presence (for better or for worse) ever since it burst on the scene in 1993.

Befitting the OED’s more measured editorial pace, it lags behind other dictionaries that have already made space for uptalk. Here are some other lexicographical treatments:

Random House Unabridged Dictionary:
a rise in pitch at the end usually of a declarative sentence, esp. if habitual: often represented in writing by a question mark: Hi, I’m here to read the meter?

American Heritage Dictionary:
A manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with a rising intonation as though they were questions.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary:
speech in which each clause, sentence, etc., ends like a question with a rising inflection <Starting in America with the Valley Girls of the 1980s …, uptalk became common among young women across the country by the 1990s. — Douglas Quenqua, New York Times, 27 Feb. 2012>

Oxford Dictionaries:
A manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with rising intonation at the end, as if they were questions.

Still, while uptalk has already been added to other dictionaries (including from Oxford itself), OED recognition is nonetheless a significant milestone and a good opportunity to look back at the word’s history.

The OED entry actually starts with another sense of uptalk that never stuck around, defined as “apparently: speech interpolated in a performance of a song.” The sense is tagged as “rare,” with one citation to back it up:

1976   Variety 11 Feb. 82/1   Roz Clark sticks to a theme in her repertoire, her role as woman and lover, offering some uptalk between verses of ‘I’m A Woman’ and dedicating love tunes to the man in her life.

But the true birth of uptalk occurred on Aug. 15, 1993, when The New York Times Magazine published an “On Language” column by James Gorman, a journalism lecturer at NYU (filling in for the vacationing William Safire). The column, headlined “Like, Uptalk?“, begins:

I used to speak in a regular voice. I was able to assert, demand, question. Then I started teaching. At a university? And my students had this rising intonation thing? It was particularly noticeable on telephone messages. “Hello? Professor Gorman? This is Albert? From feature writing?”

I had no idea that a change in the “intonation contour” of a sentence, as linguists put it, could be as contagious as the common cold. But before long I noticed a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in my own speech. I first heard it when I myself was leaving a message. “This is Jim Gorman? I’m doing an article on Klingon? The language? From ‘Star Trek’?” I realized then that I was unwittingly, unwillingly speaking uptalk.

I was, like, appalled?

Rising intonations at the end of a sentence or phrase are not new. In many languages, a “phrase final rise” indicates a question. Some Irish, English and Southern American dialects use rises all the time. Their use at the end of a declarative statement may date back in America to the 17th century.

Nonetheless, we are seeing, well, hearing, something different. Uptalk, under various names, has been noted on this newspaper’s Op-Ed page and on National Public Radio. Cynthia McLemore, a University of Pennsylvania linguist who knows as much about uptalk as anyone, says the frequency and repetition of rises mark a new phenomenon. And although uptalk has been most common among teen-agers, in particular young women, it seems to be spreading. Says McLemore, “What’s going on now in America looks like a dialect shift.” In other words, what is happening may be a basic change in the way Americans talk.

Indeed, Cynthia McLemore confirms that Gorman coined uptalk specifically for the column while interviewing her about her research (stemming from her 1991 dissertation, “The Pragmatic Interpretation of English Intonation: Sorority Speech”).

The OED rightly cites Gorman’s column as the first use of the linguistic sense of uptalk. The column set off the first of many flurries of media interest in the phenomenon, particularly as it relates to the speech of young women. Gorman’s term, despite being a journalistic concoction, even gained favor among linguists, including our own Mark Liberman, who wrote in a 2006 post that uptalk is “a good term for the practice of ending assertions with rising pitch” (and preferable to high rising terminal, or HRT, which Mark deems inaccurate).

As evidence of the term’s success among linguists, there’s even a new book out from Cambridge Univ. Press by Paul Warren (a linguist at Victoria University of Wellington) entitled Uptalk: The Phenomenon of Rising IntonationUnfortunately, the book is already in need of updating, as on page 1 it says that “the term ‘uptalk’ is not (yet) listed in the Oxford English Dictionary or the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, not even in their online versions.” (The Merriam-Webster definition quoted above is from the Unabridged, a premium online product; uptalk has yet to make it into the Collegiate, which is freely available at merriam-webster.com.)

While uptalk has remained the preferred term, a variant emerged in the wake of Gorman’s column: upspeak. That, too, has a new entry in the OED’s latest update. As with uptalkupspeak had a previous usage that didn’t last, defined by the OED as “the use of political rhetoric emphasizing positive but trivial statements” and illustrated by this citation:

1971   N.Y. Times 12 Sept. e17/2   To this point the ‘upspeak’ had gone beautifully.

In its prosodic sense, the earliest citation for upspeak as a noun is from Nov. 1994, about a year after the coinage of uptalk:

1994   Calgary Herald 18 Nov. a4/3   Linguists say the Yanks are using more ‘uptalk’ or ‘upspeak’—a pattern defined as using a rising intonation so that ordinary straight sentences sound a bit like questions.

Interestingly, though, upspeak first appeared as a verb a year before that, in a Nov. 1993 Chicago Tribune article, just a few months after Gorman’s column was published.

1993   Chicago Tribune 28 Nov. vi. 7/3   There’s this linguist? Cynthia McLemore? Who studied female students at the University of Texas? Who up-speak a lot? And she found out, empirically, that up-talk may very well serve a useful purpose.

The OED’s second edition already had an entry for upspeak as a verb, which in the nineteenth century could mean “to speak up; to begin to speak”; the linguistic sense has been appended as a draft addition. But while upspeak gets treatment as both a noun and verb, uptalk is only entered as a noun. Katherine Martin, head of US dictionaries for Oxford University Press, told me that uptalk didn’t make the cut as a verb because it appears far less frequently than the noun. Upspeak as a verb merited inclusion on etymological grounds because it is attested earlier than its noun form.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for its part, includes uptalk as both noun and verb (as well as upspeak as both noun and verb). Here’s the verb section of MWU’s uptalk entry:

uptalk also up–talk intransitive verb, uptalked also up–talked; up·talk·ing also up–talk·ing; up·talks also up–talks < … girls in my high school who used to buy expensive sandwiches and uptalk. — Amy Sohn, New York Post, 14 Sept. 1999> <The road to job success starts after you study up on these 10 real-world work rules. … 2 Don’t up-talk. Speaking in a singsong voice and posing statements as if they were questions leave you sounding girlie and unsure. — Colleen Rush, Cosmopolitan, January 2006>

In fact, the potential of uptalk (and upspeak) to be used as a verb was recognized way back in 1994, in an installment of “Among the New Words” in American Speech. The neologisms were spotted by the feature’s editors at the time, John and Adele Algeo. (I currently serve as editor of “Among the New Words,” along with Jane Solomon and Charles Carson.) The following appeared in AmSp Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 1994):

And in 2001, the Barnhart Dictionary Companion added more attestations of uptalk as a verb, as well as the derived forms uptalker and uptalking (as a verbal noun or participial adjective). These days, uptalking appears fairly often online in the seemingly endless churn of uptalk commentary — which continues to focus on young women, typically casting their intonational patterns in a negative light. As we’ve frequently observed, uptalk, while a useful label, can also serve to stereotype and trivialize women’s speech.

Some of our past posts on uptalk:



7 Comments

  1. Robert Davis said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    In the 1970s, I was working with French Hewlett-Packard engineers on English. One department head, who had excellent English, would end sentences with “up-speak”, suggesting that he was not sure. “This Hewlett-Packard product is an excellent product?, maybe?” Your readers who know French well can comment if this is standard or an indivdual idiosyncrasy.

    [(myl) As Pierre Delattre pointed out half a century ago (“La Leçon d’intonation de Simone de Beauvoir, étude d’intonation déclarative comparée“, The French Review 1961), French intonation has always been much more frequently rising than English intonation (aside from the part of the British Isles and the former colonies adequately awakened to rises by Scandinavian influence…). Delattre compares two recorded lectures, one by Simone de Beauvoir and one by Margaret Mead:

    Nous allons voir que la derniere syllabe des groupes de continuation est le plus souvent marquée d’une intonation ascendante chez S, et desendante chez M.

    Sur les 228 groupes de continuation de S, 213 ont une forme franchement ascendante, et 15 seulement une forme descendante. De plus, notons que la pente de ces 15 est fort douce et contraste sans ambiguite avec la pente brusque des descentes de finalité. Ces 15 descentes servent de toute évidence a briser la monotonie.

    Sur les 207 groupes de continuation de M, on ne compte que 22 formes ascendantes contre 185 formes descendantes! On peut subdiviser ces dernieres en 145 formes descendantes sans retour et 40 formes descendantes mais terminees par un léger crochet remontant qui porte le plus souvent sur la consonne finale, comme dans certain (Fig. 2), et a, par suite, une tres faible audibilité.

    ]

  2. Rakau said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 3:41 am

    Te Reo Maori (New Zealand Maori) uses rising intonations to make declarative sentences into questions. As far as I am aware other polynesian languages do the same. A large number of polynesian and other Pacific people live in southern California. Is there a connection between this and the Valley Girl origins of uptalk (if in fact uptalk originated in California)?

  3. rpsms said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    I always thought of uptalk as having an unvoiced “OK/do you follow,” so they are not actually declarative. They are subtly different than a statement-question. A return-receipt request.

    “Hello? Professor Gorman{, right?}. This is Albert{, OK?}. From feature writing{, you dig?}.”

  4. Terry Hunt said,

    September 13, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

    I suspect that if laypersons in Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) were polled, a majority would attribute ‘uptalk’ in the UK to have become prevalent due to the influence of the extremely popular Australian TV soap opera Neighbors (and its spinoffs), broadcast in the UK from October 1986 and particularly popular with children and teenagers. This seems to me to be a likelier vector than from ‘Valley Speak’, which in the UK was and is surely much lesser known.

    As I think has been mentioned in Language Log Posts passim, a weaker form of ‘uptalk’ has long been present in the accents of Northern Ireland and Liverpool, but had not previously spread from these to the rest of the UK – it would be interesting to know:
    (i) why not;
    (ii) whether it’s correct that the UK source was indeed Neighbors; and
    (iii) why it arose in Australia in the first place (a high proportion of ‘uptalking’ Irish and Liverpudlians among the earliest immigrants seems superficially plausible). I don’t recall the earlier discussions coming to definite conclusions on these topics.

  5. Yuval said,

    September 14, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    Interesting how there hasn’t been a meaning derived from the composite verb “to talk (X) up”, as in “uptalk: discourse associated with trying to make X better than they seem to be”.

  6. Peter Berry said,

    September 15, 2016 @ 7:51 pm

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I (a southern Englishman) never really perceived the rising intonation in (Northern) Irish and Scouse accents (e.g. by Dennis Taylor and Cilla Black, respectively) as sounding like questions… unlike the same coming from Australians in Neighbours. (Not Neighbors – they mostly use British spellings down under.) In my mind it’s actually a stereotypically Australian trait.

  7. Christian Saunders said,

    September 19, 2016 @ 10:42 am

    I made a video about Australian English, which features examples of native speakers using uptalk. It’s quite funny, check it out: https://youtu.be/J9cIniVl0bg?t=18m4s

    [(myl)The examples in your video nicely demonstrate that in Australia, like in the U.S., “Uptalk is not HRT“. That term came out of a (false) theory-based claim that these rises must start from well up in the speaker’s range, because of some wrong ideas, which I hope no longer matter, about the alleged “meaning” of various pitch accents in English. But in fact such final rises often start near the bottom of the speaker’s range. Since the “High Rising Terminal” nomenclature comes from a long-since discredited theory — or maybe I should say from a tone deaf application of a theory for which there was never any serious empirical evidence — it should be abandoned.

    As evidence, here’s your very first example:


    Sorry to be a bit emphatic here, but it seems oddly difficult to get people to look at the facts in this case.]

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