A reader from France, SW, wrote to ask some questions about English intonation:
It is with great interest that I discovered your posts on ‘uptalk’ on Language Log, in which you briefly retrace the history of the study of the phenomenon. In several of these posts, you highlight the fact that the association of uptalk with unassertiveness and tentativeness is unfounded, to say the least.
May I ask you if you thereby intend to correct the view propagated by somewhat simplistic newspaper articles, or if you are also disputing the views held by certain linguists?
(I would like to specify that my question is by no means meant to be polemical. I am currently doing research on language change and suprasegmental innovations in Leeds, where young people have recently been observed to use rising tones (UNB rises, not HRTs) at the end of declaratives, and I am trying to obtain information about the history of research on uptalk.)
I also noticed that you had entitled one of your posts ‘uptalk is not HRTs’. Could I ask you what difference you would then make between uptalk and HRTs (I had hitherto assumed that Alan Cruttenden and Robert Ladd established a clear difference between UNB rises on the one hand, and HRTs, *that is, uptalk*, on the other hand).
These questions and their answers are a bit more "inside baseball" than usual for Language Log — but perhaps some readers will be interested, and the rest of you are hereby warned to move along to another post.
To understand SW's questions, you need to know that uptalk means "the practice of using final rising pitch on statements, stereotypically attributed to younger speakers of English as of the 1990s"; and you need to translate the acronyms UNB ("Urban North British") and HRT ("High Rising Terminal"). For more background, the end of this post offers a list of links to previous LL posts on these topic.
Let me try to answer the questions in several stages. I'll focus mainly on the issues that relate to the American version of "uptalk", since I've never worked on the Australia/New Zealand variety.
1. First, is it only journalists who are wrong to claim that "uptalk" is typically unassertive or tentative?
Answer: no. Anyone who says something that isn't true is mistaken. Journalists have no monopoly on error.
2. Second, is (American) "uptalk" exclusively or characteristically composed of "high rises" as opposed to "low rises", as some descriptions have claimed?
Answer: no. As far as I know, none of those who have asserted this have ever offered any evidence, beyond and example or two; and it takes only a few minutes of looking at the pitch contours of uptalkers to find counter-examples. (For a few examples, see e.g. Angry rises, 2/11/2006, and Satirical cartoon uptalk is not HRT either, 11/14/2006.)
It's possible that North American uptalkers tend to begin their stress-associated uptalk rises statistically higher in their pitch range than their yes-no question rises — though no one has ever systematically studied this, as far as I know, and it might well also turn out to be false — but I have no doubt that they sometimes produce uptalk rises that start right down at the bottom of their range.
3. Third, do English speakers, and American uptalkers in particular, make a qualitative distinction between (the stress-associated) "high rise" and "low rise" tonal accents?
Answer: I don't know, but I doubt it.
As far as I know, there has never been a demonstration of multiple modes in the distribution of rising tone patterns in production, or a clear category distinction in perception, or any other non-anecdotal evidence for a qualitative distinction rather than a continuous space of variation.
The history of this idea is rather complicated, so I'll postpone a detailed account to another post or two; but in brief, Henry Sweet in his 1877 Handbook of Phonetics made a basic distinction among English "tones" as level, rising, and falling, following Alexander Melville Bell's 1860 Elocutionary Manual. And obviously, as Sweet observed,
All these tones can be varied indefinitely according to the interval they pass through. As a general rule, the greater the interval, the more marked the character of the tone.
In the 1902 edition of his Handbook, Sweet added two sentences in which he proposes the additional option of adding the degree modifiers high and low, simply for descriptive convenience in referring to different parts of a continuous space of choices:
For ordinary purposes it is enough to distinguish between a high rise and a low rise, the former passing through a less interval than the latter. Conversely a high fall passes though a great interval than a low fall.
In later work in the same tradition, Sweet's convenient degree-modifiers are sometimes treated as if they were qualitatively distinct categories of rise and fall, but rarely with much conviction. Thus in his 1986 Intonation, Alan Cruttenden writes:
Three basic factors are involved in a taxonomy of nuclear tones in English …
(i) the initial movement from the nucleus: fall or rise or level
(ii) the beginning point of this initial movement: high or low; if there are syllables preceding the nucleus, a step-up will often signal high and a step-down will often signal low
(iii) a second change of pitch direction following the nucleus: this produces complex tones such as rise-fall and fall-rise (and even rise-fall-rise).
If we permuted all possible combination of these three basic factors, a very large number of nuclear tones would result, so in practice we limit ourselves to describing just those variations which most obviously carry major differences in meaning. This is an area where almost every analyst varies in his judgment of what constitutes a 'major difference of meaning' and hence in the number of nuclear tones which are set up. Nor are the arguments for any one particular set of nuclear tones ever very convincing or indeed explicit; in fact, given that intonational meanings are often intangible and nebulous, it is difficult to see how a wholly convincing case of any one set of nuclear tones can be made. So the set of nuclear tones which I establish should not be regarded as 'God's truth'.
And in her 1980 dissertation, Janet Pierrehumbert suggested (without empirical support beyond illustrative examples) that the distinction between low rise and high rise should be regarded as categorical in nature (i.e. as a phonemic distinction in the system of English intonation), while the distinction between low fall and high fall should be regarded as a gradient one. This proposal, after some further elaboration, was taken up in a once-popular attempt ("ToBI") to provide a standard notation for English intonation.
Against this background, when researchers began looking into the phenomenon of uptalk in Australia and New Zealand, they assumed that "high rise" was the right terminological choice. Even in the ANZ studies, as far as I know, this decision was never supported by a careful quantitative study of a corpus of examples — it wouldn't surprise me to find an Australian uptalker starting some rises at the bottom of his or her range, or after step-downs, or etc.
[Update: And in fact, here's an example from Janet Fletcher et al., "Intonational Variation in Four Dialects of English", in Sun-Ah Jun, Ed., Prosodic Typology, 2005:
4. Among uptalkers, are "uptalk" rises and rises on yes-no questions categorically distinct?
(This is a separate question from the previous one, since there are other differences besides low-vs.-high rise that might distinguish them. For example, the "tail" of the final contour, as most clearly seen on a series of post-main-stress syllables, might be rising, level or "slumping".)
Answer: No, as far as I can tell, though different interactional contexts have different distributions of contours, under both gradient and categorical descriptions.
Note that this is essentially the same answer that Bob Ladd gives for UNB intonation in his 1996 book Intonational Phonology, p. 144:
...it is not clear whether there is a difference between ordinary statement intonation and ordinary question intonation in these varieties of English. Native speakers of Glasgow-area varieties among my students over the past several years have mostly maintained that there is not such a difference …
5. Finally, are uptalk rises different from UNB rises?
Answer: Yes and no.
From the point of view of the distribution of pitch contours across contexts, an American uptalker (and there are almost certainly many different subtypes) is almost certainly rather different from a UNB speaker (among whom there are probably also many different subtypes). However, there has been remarkably little systematic empirical study of North American uptalk, and certainly nothing that would support a reliable answer to this question.
With respect to the phonetics of pitch contours, independent of their association with discourse or interactional contexts, I'm skeptical that the UNB rises are different in kind from the rises found in American uptalk. There may be statistical differences in the distribution of parameters like the timing of the minimum relative to the accented syllable, the shape of the tail, etc. But I suspect that any pattern occuring in UNBI also occurs in U.S. speech.
Alan Cruttenden has a great deal of experience with intonation in the British Isles, but as far as I know, his discussion of the differences between UNB rises and uptalk (e.g. in his 1995 "Rises in English") is based on secondary sources for the North American and Australia/New Zealand patterns.
And as for Bob Ladd, he asserted in a comment on an earlier LL post that
It's important not to confuse the rises in Belfast, Glasgow, etc. with uptalk. They're phonetically and functionally very different. I've laid out the reasons in my book Intonational Phonology (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996; second edition due out shortly), and won't repeat them all here because it would take too much space.
But the discussion in the 1996 edition of his book (pp. 143-147) is much more equivocal than his comment. He comments on the variability of shape and alignment in these tone patterns in Glasgow; he suggests that the various UNB regions may well vary among themselves in various ways; and the only empirical work on American English that he cites is Pierrehumbert's, which he characterizes as describing "stylized" (i.e. artificial) contours. He proposes somewhat tentatively that "the UNB rising intonation is a sequence [of a nuclear rise followed by a level-to-falling tail] which does not occur in standard British or American English"; but as you can see from several of the pitch contours in the posts linked below, it's easy to find such "sagging" tails following stress-linked rises in American speech.
For additional background, here are some of the earlier Language Log posts that deal with related questions:
This is, like, such total crap? (5/15/2005)
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)
Poem in the key of what (10/9/2006)
Satirical cartoon uptalk is not HRT either (11/14/2006)
Intonation contours and polonium poisoning (12/16/2006)
Uptalk anxiety (9/7/2008)
The phonetics of uptalk (9/13/2008)
Word (in)constancy (9/16/2008)