Uptalk awakening

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Keith "Rip van" Humphries awoke from a couple of decades of sleep and asked "This is a Declarative Statement?" (9/28/2013):

I have been noticing something lately about the way many people are speaking? It seems more common among women than men, but they both do it? It involves making statements in a rising tone that suggests the statement is a question? I keep thinking I am expected to answer even when someone says something simple and declarative, like “Hi my name is Bob”? It’s driving me crazy?

Is anyone else noticing more of this style of speech, and, if so, how in the name all that’s sacred can we stamp it out? (That really IS a question and not a statement phrased as one).

James Gorman wrote a NYT column about this phenomenon a bit more than 20 years ago, when it was already old news ("Like, uptalk?", 8/15/1993). For a quick refresher course on this aspect of English intonational trends over the past couple of generations, I'd suggest these two Language Log posts:

"This is, like, such total crap?", 5/15/2005
"Uptalk anxiety", 9/7/2008

And for additional factual and theoretical detail:

"Uptalk uptick?", 12/15/2005
"Angry rises", 2/11/2006
"Further thoughts on 'the affect'", 3/22/2006
"Uptalk is not HRT", 3/28/2006
"Satirical cartoon uptalk is not HRT either", 11/14/2006
"The phonetics of uptalk", 9/13/2008
"Word (in)constancy", 9/16/2008
"Elementary-school uptalk", 11/30/2008

 

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32 Comments »

  1. Ellen K. said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

    Don't know if it's geographic, a matter of social circles, or just my own obliviousness, but I've also never noticed uptalk. But at least I know about it. :)

  2. William Steed said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

    It's sure typical of younger Australian English. I (in my 30s) occasionally pop out with it, though I'd usually avoid it due to the stigma attached to it (that of lower education).

  3. Bobbie said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

    Sounds like some people have been under a rock?? For years??

  4. Brian O'Connor said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    These kids today with their long hair and their rock music and their bell bottom trousers.

  5. JSF said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 6:58 pm

    Perhaps uptalk controls a conversation by requiring the listener to discern when a question is actually being asked, thereby putting the listener in a constant "I need to respond" position, which is defensive.

  6. Christian Hege said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 9:16 pm

    Actually, I use it in performance of metered, rhymed verse. It's a tool, that possibly wouldn't have been available 50 years ago.

    If a couple of rhymes are a little distant and the meter isn't rigorous, then the rhyme will get lost, without some help from inflection. From the introduction to a piece I'm working on (with uptalk marked):

    "I have to go away a little while, (?)
    Or maybe longer. I'll be back, I swear.
    You're safer here than home. I know it isn't quite the style (?)
    You're used to, no TV – it isn't fair,
    But this is how it has to be tonight.
    The world just got a lot more dangerous – here, you'll be allright."

    The enjambment of line 3&4 would ender the rhyme unnoticed by the listener – especially since line 3 has 7 feet, compared to 5 in line 1. But a slight uptalk inflection on line 1 lets me use a matching intonation at the end of line 3 that is conversationally very natural, and it brings out the rhyme.

    So voila?

    [(myl) English speakers who would be shocked to be accused of using uptalk nevertheless regularly deploy a range of rising intonations in certain non-terminal phrases, such as the first half of wide-scope disjunctions, the protasis of conditionals, non-final items in lists, etc. What you describe sounds like the use of such linking rises in poetry reading.

    Linking rises can obviously also be used in final phrases to indicate e.g. an incomplete list.

    Another common use of final rises in declarative contexts, in varieties of English where final rises are not the norm, is to evoke attention if not response from the audience -- Cynthia McLemore noted in her dissertation, more than 20 years ago, that this can also be seen as a kind of linking. She also observed that there are specific discourse situations, in a given speech community, where different intonational patterns are normal and therefore expected. For example, in the meetings of a student group, new business was regularly introduced with final rises, recurrent items with final levels, and statements of obligation with final falls.

    And of course there are (traditional) varieties of English, e.g. Belfast, where final rises are the norm in pretty much all declarative sentences.

    Across different discourse contexts in different varieties of English, the proportion of final rises varies widely, and presumably the "meaning" (both to speakers and listeners) depends on the expectations that these different contextual frequencies create.

    The annoyance exhibited by Rip van Humphries is typical of some people's reaction to encountering others whose contextual behavior is unexpected and therefore liable to misinterpretation.]

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 29, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

    This may have been mentioned in an earlier uptalk post or comment thread, but the Welsh snooker commentator Terry Griffiths ends many declarative sentences with a rising intonation, and I have the impression he does drop the pitch of his voice just prior to the rise, so the tonal contrast in a word like "center" ("He has a red available to the right center" e.g.) is very marked.

    [(myl) As discussed here, "A number of North British accents (Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Birmingham, Tyneside) (Cruttenden 1986) … systematically use rising pitch at the end of what are clearly statements." This area of traditional rising accents doesn't (as described) include Griffiths' home town of Llanelli in Wales, but it's possible that this is a traditional regional feature rather than an individual quirk or evidence of a recent trend.

    This would be consistent with the pattern described in J. Roderick Walters, "On the intonation of a South Wales 'Valleys accent' of English", Journal of the IPA, 2003:

    1) Obtrusion (pitch movement TO the stressed syllable): 
    * at non-final accents, 42.2% are upwards, 7.4% level and 50.4% downwards, 
    * at final accents, 40.6% are upwards, 3.6% are level and 55.8% downwards.
    2) Initial movement FROM the stressed syllable, i.e. rising, falling or level (excluding ‘single level
    accents’):
    * at non-final accents, 5.3% are falling, 6.9% are level and 87.8% are rising,
    * at final accents, 21.6% are falling, 2.7% are level and 75.7% are rising.
    3) Terminal tones:
    * 60.1% are rising (level being subsumed with rising),
    * 39.9% are falling.

    It seems plausible to me that "uptalk" in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia represents the spread (or in some cases just the observation) of a pattern that's been normal in some regional varieties of English for a thousand years or more, originally representing the results of contact with Celtic and/or Scandinavian languages. In the U.S., the history might involve the people of Scots-Irish background who migrated to California during the Dust Bowl era in the 1930s, who formed a substantial part of the ethnic background of the "valley girl" stereotype.

    I don't know any systematic studies of the intonation of e.g. North Americans of Scots-Irish ancestry, but 20 years ago, a student of mine found a substantial percentage of uptalk in recordings of elderly men calling in to a sports talk radio show originating in Toronto.]

  8. RobertL said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 2:39 am

    @William Steed – I think that Australia is famous for it's "rising inflection" and has been since at least the 1970s, if not earlier.

    That's when I moved here (as a child) and it confused me.

    I can recall comedians on TV noting it as well. That is, Australian comedians mocking the speech of their fellow Australians.

  9. Chris C. said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 2:53 am

    I suspect that the only thing that's changed is that a speech pattern observable mostly among youth 20 years ago is carrying over, and 20 years later they're using it as mature adults. I do seem to notice it more from official spokespersons, public officials, etc. than I recall hearing a few years ago, but probably not that much more overall.

  10. Matt said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 7:48 am

    That is, Australian comedians mocking the speech of their fellow Australians.

    You say that as if Australian comedy had any other subject! When Language Log recruits its first Australian, YouTube clips of The Comedy Company and Kath & Kim will dominate the front page for months.

  11. Alexander said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    Uptalk appears to me to be pretty much the norm in Vancouver BC, by men and women of all sorts. Whether this goes back to Scottish roots I don't know, but that seems plausible.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 10:28 am

    myl's hypothesis that uptalk came into Valspeak from Scotch-Irish roots via Oklahoma is . . . interesting. Somewhere out there there must be demographic analyses of the massive rise in the Southern California population over the course of the 20th century, that would e.g. tell you for a cohort of non-Hispanic white teenagers growing up in the Valley or Orange County circa 1980 where their (probably largely not California-native) parents and grandparents had been born and raised, so you could get a quantitative sense of how significant the "Okie" regional dialect might be likely to have been in which parts of the state.

    I'm sure the Dust-Bowl-era Okies spread all over California, but the standard narrative is that they were especially concentrated in the Central Valley, and even more so toward its southern end in Kern County, thus the rise in the late 1950"s of the Bakersfield scene as a temporary rival (Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, etc.) to Nashville in C&W music. Indeed, one isogloss map Out There on the internet shows Bakersfield/Kern Co. as an outlying island of the pin/pen merger, which otherwise stops pretty much where the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles reach the New Mexico line. But Bakersfield is rather a ways away from the Sherman Oaks Galleria, with some pretty rugged terrain in between. OTOH, there was a subset of LA-area punk rockers in the '80's who became enamored with country music, but that could as easily well be from urban-hipster causes as personal-ethnic-heritage causes (e.g. a lot of the Greenwich Village folkies of the '60's were personally of decidedly non-Appalachian ancestry). One anthology of that stuff (alt.country before that monicker had been coined) was called "A Town South of Bakersfield" as a kenning reference to LA, not unlike calling Texas "Baja Oklahoma."

    [(myl) This idea is obviously pure speculation. But something like a million people came to California in the Dust Bowl migration, from Texas and other places as well as Oklahoma; and independent of that specific migration, there were plenty of other ways for people with Scots-Irish roots to end up in California. And I like the idea that ValSpeak (or at least this aspect of it) might be a long-distance echo of the effects of Viking raids on the British Isles in the 10th century.]

  13. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    I want a LL post on the "dying fall" or downtalking, the tendency of the voice to descend too much at the end of assertions, and make even questions sound like statements of facts. I have been noticing this in myself and other middle-aged professors

    [(myl) Can you point me to some good examples, on NPR or YouTube or Ted talks or wherever?]

  14. David B said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    Good point in the last post upthread on measuring the actual influence of what I guess we'd have to call Bakersfield Oklahoman English on English in Southern California more generally, though I'd note that the important thing to measure wouldn't be whether present-day Southern Californians had Okie parents or grandparents, but rather whether present-day Southern Californians who are demographically at the leading edge of the adoption of uptalk had enough contact with Oklahoman emigrants to be likely to pick it up from them—and that's a much harder thing to measure, or even to figure out how to measure.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    As it happens, I'm just back from a vacation in Paris, where we took the Metro a lot, and I noticed that on those lines where the station announcements are automated, the voice announces each station twice (with a couple of second in between), with slightly different intonations; in many of these cases the first intonation sounds (to my ear) faintly interrogative, so that the second one seems to be confirmatory: St.-Michel? St.-Michel. Perhaps this is just an artifact of the fact that French speakers tend to end sentences on what sounds to English-speakers like a rising intonation.

    [(myl) A very common French intonational pattern has strongly-marked terminal rises on all non-final clauses in a sequence, with a falling pattern on the final clause.]

  16. Faldone said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

    A couple of things: It seems to me that the rising intonation in uptalk is not the same as the rising intonation in some questions (Note that not all questions end in a rising intonation; questions that are marked by a wh- word tend not to have a rising intonation at the end) . If the dying fall is the same thing I'm thinking of, i.e., a decrease in volume toward the end of a sentence, it is extremely common but you might have to have some hearing loss to notice it. Try turning the volume down on your radio or television or on your computer when listening to some talk show.

  17. Eric P Smith said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    A number of North British accents (Glasgow … )

    Yes indeed. I was born and brought up in Edinburgh. Glasgow, 45 miles away, might sometimes be a different world. In the 1960s a school friend from Glasgow, aged 12, politely held a door open for a female teacher. She said, "Thank you," and he politely replied, "It's a pleasure," with a rising voice at the end. The teacher misinterpreted this as sarcasm and reprimanded him.

    I can still hear him say it and, yes, it sounds sarcastic to an Edinburgh ear. The penultimate syllable has low pitch and in that regard it sounds quite different from modern uptalk.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_English claims that the local accent in some of the inland/rural parts of California was already Oklahoma-like (because of earlier settlement patterns) before the Okies got there in the 1930's, and also claims that the Bakersfield/Tulare/etc. mode of speaking remains to this day quite distinctive from what you get around Los Angeles. Part of the question is what one might call (well, I might call . . .) the David Hackett Fischer issue – to what extent are regional differences in American accents attributable to pre-Atlantic-crossing regional differences in British accents and the tendency of the early settlers of particular regions of the 13 colonies to come disproportionately from particular regions of the British Isles.

    Neither Moon Unit Zappa nor Jeff Spicoli are very Scotch-Irish-sounding names, so hurrah for the melting pot!

    [(myl) There's a simple (?) factual matter that's relevant here: to what extent do today's south-midland speakers of Scots-Irish ancestry retain the characteristic final rises of their Scots-Irish ancestors? We don't know -- and similarly we know almost nothing about the distribution of intonational patterns in everyday usage among any American groups or subgroups. The level of ignorance is scandalous, really, given the apparently breadth of interest in the phenomena. And the reasons for this ignorance are, well, never mind.

  19. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

    I don't have good examples of downtalking but I know I don't like this about my own recorded speech: it seems my downs are too low for my own taste. I was being semi-satirical. I don't think I actually fail to mark questions intonationally in the correct way.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

    I've heard downtalking in various contexts, but I always associate it with Pittsburgh (or "Pixburgh"). The accents in this comedy video may be a little caricatured, but they're quite recognizable. There are a couple of questions right at the beginning.

    I remember it (from visits in my youth to my relatives in Pittsburgh) a little differently. "Dja see the Stillers game, Bawb?" with the high note on "Still-" and a steady descent from there.

  21. Acilius said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    I've gone a step further that Jonathan Mayhew. I've noticed that I tend to trail off a bit at the end of sentences, and so I have deliberately begun to use a bit of uptalk recently.

  22. Robert Ayers said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

    I had never noticed this "rising tone at the end of clause" until a month ago, when I started listening to the CD lectures "Emerson Thoreau and the Transcendentalist Movement" in "the great courses" series. Lecturer exhibited the rising tone clause-end in almost every compound sentence and I found it quite odd.
    Biographical notes on lecturer say born and youth in DC MD and VA.

  23. David Morris said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

    Because I spend my day surrounded by English as a second language speakers (students, administrative and managerial staff, wife, her niece and friends), rarely listen to the radio (and when I do it's Classic FM) and rarely watch television, I rarely get to listen to any speakers of Australian English as a first language, so I really don't know how widespread this inflection is.

  24. Jeffry House said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

    1970s: We were taught that uptalk was a way of "softening" declarative sentences to cleanse oneself of machismo. University of Wisconsin, Madison.

    [(myl) People did (and do) say things like that. But listen to Taylor Mali's self-refuting rant, and see if you can explain the soft and feminine nature of uptalk with a straight face.]

  25. Mal Gaffney said,

    September 30, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

    In teaching english studies to Spanish-American boys and girls, I would hear the students using a rising terminal all the time. Spanish being the language mostly used in the home, english-studies learners used the uptalk intonation in a way consistent with their parent’s speech habits.

  26. Jack Tomlinson said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 5:40 am

    Look, uptalk has probably been around for lot longer that most would admit and the difference over the years has probably been the frequency of use among younger (and now older) American English speakers. I'm sure that 50 years ago, people spoke spontaneously and rising terminal contours was just as likely in cases of continuation and/or speech planning processes. Given its increased use, we can then discuss new functions that have come about and might have had influence to increasing its popularity.

    Readers have mentioned the sociological pressures for increased use among younger speakers. However, it's a bit oversimplied to assume that uptalk is a linguistic virus and just infiltrates speakers' default intonation for declarative sentences. I'd argue for a more chicken and egg approach, in which, yes, there are group driven reasons why people start using it, but also because uptalk has some attractive functions, above and beyond simply "power dynamics" and holding the floor while speaking.

    One properly linguistic function was suggested by Christine Gunlogson in her dissertation. Her argument is that speakers use rising pitch in declarative utterances to "distance themselves from the truth propositional content of the utterance". In other words, speakers can reduce their commitment to a specific claim/proposition/argument that is presupposed with an assertion. This is obviously useful in "loose talk" because such a definition can account many of the dozens of functions of uptalk proposed in the literature, e.g. seeking affirmation, testing the common ground, etc.

    Anyhow, it seems hear to stay and while I lived in Cardiff for two years, it also seemed quite popular with the students (and just the ones from the Valleys!). What is more annoying for people studying intonation is "creaky voice" and why this has caught on. I once had to throw away 40% of my stimuli once because of it! At least with uptalk, we get some more dynamic pitch ranges and some nice pitch tracks!

  27. Jayarava said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 5:46 am

    A rising inflection on the end of sentences has been standard in Antipodean (Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Island) English throughout my lifetime (I'm 47). To my knowledge I don't experience confusion as to which sentences are questions and which are not.

  28. Eneri Rose said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 9:24 am

    To me, uptalk is used by the unsure, or insecure, to elicit affirmation from listeners. I had a colleague who spoke using uptalk during meetings. I commented about this to another colleague who on reflection, realized that he felt compelled to nod as the uptalker spoke even when he did not necessarily agree.

  29. Ellen K. said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    The last link links to the wrong post.

  30. Matt said,

    October 1, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

    To me, uptalk is used by the unsure, or insecure, to elicit affirmation from listeners. I had a colleague who spoke using uptalk during meetings. I commented about this to another colleague who on reflection, realized that he felt compelled to nod as the uptalker spoke even when he did not necessarily agree.

    Your second sentence suggests that it could just as easily be suggested that uptalk is used by the confident and domineering, to coerce agreement and acquiescence from listeners…

    (If only there were some sort of "word-ology" that could investigate these issues systematically, rather than leaving us to speculate idly based on our own subjective impressions!)

  31. shaybill said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

    Uptalk, seems to be a normal way of speaking for residents in the Midwest. Uptalk is a nice way to describe what many refer to as 'singing' during a conversation. Because of the frequency of my encounters, I have learned to live with the musical voices of others.

    Has anyone else noticed the proliferation of the usage of "These Ones" to describe a single object? It is something that I noticed immediately after returning to the Midwest, but did not hear people speak like this on the West Coast. So many people use the term when they are speaking and do not seem to know that it is a form of grammatically incorrect communication. The frequency of use is also prevalent within the schools and teachers do not mark off for this obvious grammatical error. Wow!

  32. Al said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

    I've only come across uptalk in written form on English speaking blogs or social media platforms (I'm not living in an English speaking country) and I always thought it was a form of 'internet-speak' / a stylistic choice to convey some kind of tongue-in-cheek humour.
    Very interesting!

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