Several times over the past few years, I've speculated that American "uptalk", stereotypically associated with Californian "Valley Girls" in the 1980s, might in fact have originated with the characteristically rising intonational patterns of northern England, Scotland, and Ireland, by way of the Scots-Irish immigrants who migrated to California in the 1930s Dust Bowl exodus. For example,
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.
There's a fair amount of evidence out there about how the "Okies" talked — so for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ I thought I'd take a first look, starting with Alan Lomax's 1940 interview with Woody Guthrie, in which Woody reminisces about his boyhood in Okemah, Oklahoma.
OK, this is more of a Breakfast Anecdote — but at least it's a start.
I didn't have to listen long to hear a bunch of final rises and other uptalk-like patterns:
Here are a few of the individual phrases with associated pitch tracks:
Phrase-final rises of this kind have always been an option for all English speakers, as far as I can tell — but in some varieties, they're the default, at least in certain kinds of discourse, and this change in relative frequency necessarily changes the interpretation, even without any other changes in the intonational system. As far as I can tell, this change in relative frequency (and in contextual associations) is the main thing that's going on with "uptalk" — it's not the introduction of new intonational patterns, it's (what's perceived as) a different distribution of the ones that were already there.
So to evaluate my theory, I'd have to show that in the 1920s and 1930s, the relative frequency of final rises (in certain discourse contexts) was greater among Americans of Scots-Irish background than others; and that the Dust Bowl migrations to California led to changes in speech patterns there that were later exported to the rest of America as "Valspeak".
I haven't come close to doing any of that. But if Woody Guthrie had been all fall, fall, fall, I'd have been disappointed.
A list of some previous LL uptalk posts can be found In "Uptalk awakening", 9/29/2013.
I should also forestall the readers who will respond "But it doesn't sound like Woody Guthrie is asking questions!" by asking them to apply the same judgment to Taylor Mali's famous "Totally like whatever" screed. And then to tell me what the difference between "yes/no question rises" and other sorts of final rises really is — after reading this.