In my post "Uptalk anxiety", 9/7/2008, I tried to comfort an American parent who was worried about a daughter's use of rising pitch accents on statements. As part of the recommended cognitive therapy, I observed that there are regional varieties of English, known as "Urban North British", in which rising pitch accents on statements are more common than not.
I responded that "There's no question at all that they're *functionally* different. In terms of sound, though, I think that the issue is less clear." I asked Bob whether he thinks that the pitch contours are systematically different, and in particular whether he could "tell the difference, on short phrases whose F0 and amplitude contour was used to modulate a non-speech oscillator, in the mode of the example e.g. here?"
Bob answered: "If you make some examples, we can do the experiment, but the short answer is that I think I could as long as there is a "tail", i.e. unstressed syllables after the nucleus (last main stress) – in the sound example I posted, there are two postnuclear syllables, -mond and mine. The main phonetic difference between classic North American / Antipodean uptalk and the "Urban North British" statement rises is that the latter rise at the nuclear syllable and then level out or trail off, whereas in uptalk the pitch just keeps on rising."
We're not ready to do the experiment yet, but I can offer some evidence-based suggestions about how it's likely to turn out.
What Bob says about the "UNB statement rise" is absolutely true, as far as I know. Here's the example that he provided:
(Click on the image for a larger version.)
And you can find plenty more like this, for example in the Limmy's World of Glasgow podcasts. (These are acted stories, I believe, but apparently authentic.) Here's a sample, from Xander's story about meeting his nephew's headmaster:
And just to underline the fact that these Urban North British rises don't reflect "a psychological insecurity requesting some sort of approval or affirmation from the listener that what the talker says is correct, approved by the listener or adequately explained to the listener", here's an episode described as "John Paul noises up a taxi driver". (Warning: it's possible that the only words you'll understand will be taboo ones.)
However, Bob's statement that "in uptalk the pitch just keeps on rising" is not generally true, in my experience. Rather, uptalk usually has the same pattern that Bob describes for UNB statement rises: "rise at the nuclear [i.e. main-stressed] syllable and then level out or trail off".
You can see that in the examples that I discussed two or three years ago here and here. But the first of those was a very angry and belligerent young man, and the second one is President George W. Bush giving a speech on foreign policy; so maybe those are not characteristic examples. They're certainly not stereotypical examples, which was really my point — like UNB statement rises, American uptalk is not necessarily (or even usually) polite and deferential, nor indicative of uncertainty, nor used only by young people.
But maybe if we found some really typical uptalk, it would have final rises that just keep on rising, no matter how many post-nuclear syllables there are. So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I listened to some random conversations from an LDC collection published in 2004.
In Limmy's Glasgow podcasts, nearly all the episodes have frequent rising nuclear accents in statements, but in the American conversations, I had to listen to (fragments of) four or five conversations before I found the first extended uptalking passage, produced by a 22-year-old male speaker from Minnesota:
Here's the audio and pitch contour for the first phrase alone:
The second uptalking passage that I found was produced by a 27-year-old woman born in Canada but living in Wisconsin:
Again, here's the audio and pitch contour for a short phrase with a bit of an intonational tail to look at:
These two examples are consistent with my impression that North American uptalk generally involve a rising nuclear accent (that is, a rise on or just after the last strong stress in the phrase), but a "tail" that is generally level or even slightly falling.
On the other hand, maybe there's another kind of American uptalk, or another class of American uptalkers, that has the properties that Bob describes. For an idea of what that might be like, we can turn again to Taylor Mali's uptalk imitation:
In case you hadn't realized
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you're talking about?
The first two phrases have exactly the sort of pattern that we've been talking about, but the pitch contour of the last phrase of that sentence looks like this:
Mali has the rising nuclear accent on "talking", but he ends with a boundary-linked rise on the last syllable of "about".
However, this is a performance by someone who is not a native uptalker, and is trying to satirize uptalk, which he believes is a kind of (yes/no) question intonation. So maybe he's actually producing a question intonation, because that's how he (mis-) hears uptalk.
Then again, maybe this is a stronger or more emphatic or geographically distinct form of uptalk — I don't know. Unfortunately, I don't think that anyone else knows either. (Though the examples documented here, e.g. this one, add some credence to the "stronger or more emphatic" theory…)
But I do know that it's going to be hard to distinguish Urban North British statement rises from North American uptalk, overall, just on the basis of pitch contours. And in particular, Bob's idea (that we can do it purely on the basis of whether post-nuclear syllables "just keep on rising") is not going to work.
I've always thought that North American uptalk might have Scots-Irish roots, although I've got no real evidence for this belief. The idea came up when Cindie McLemore pointed out, many years ago, that uptalk was endemic among elderly men calling in to a Toronto radio talk show about hockey. I don't know whether rising-accented statements were preserved in other North American regions with a significant Scots-Irish population; nor do I know how or why this might have played a role in the spread of "uptalk" among other groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe it was Sunbelt migration patterns; maybe it was a random memetic twitch; maybe the whole idea is wrong.
[By the way, my reason for agreeing that the UNB statement rises are functionally different from North American uptalk is not anyone's theory of what the function of either pattern is -- it's simply statistical. Work by Grabe et al. suggests that in some British speech communities, the great majority of all statements have final rises. As far as I know, there are no American speech communities where this is true -- uptalk remains more limited and more marked, and this guarantees that its communicative effect must generally be different. But in fact we know very little about who uses uptalk when and why, because despite all the discussion of this phenomenon in the literature, no one (as far as I know) has systematically annotated instances of uptalk in a published corpus of natural North American speech.]