Elementary-school uptalk

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In previous posts on "uptalk" in America, I've noted that there there are many conflicting assertions about its phonetic shape as well as its social distribution and its contextual function, but surprisingly few published examples that we can use to evaluate these claims. So from time to time, I've documented real-world examples on this blog. Such anecdotes are not a substitute for a systematic and demographically balanced study, but they're better than nothing.

However, you could argue that my posts on the subject have been, so to speak, demographically anti-balanced. In order to debunk stereotypes about the distribution of this intonation, I've often chosen strikingly counter-stereotypical uptalkers, like President Bush. So in the interest of equal time for stereotypes, this post documents some examples from the stereotypical sweet spot of the uptalk demographic — prepubescent girls.

Yesterday's Weekend Edition on NPR featured a short segment about Jon Scieszka and his new memoir ("Jon Scieszka, A Seriously Funny 'Knucklehead'"). The segment included a few clips of students discussing Scieszka's books in a fifth-grade class at the Glen Head school on Long Island, and as I listened to the program, I noticed that they used quite a bit of uptalk.

You can listen to the whole 7:49 segment via the link here; and the 1:18 section that I'll be discussing is available as a whole just below, and then in individual phrase-sized clips in the subsequent discussion.

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In commenting on the individual phrases, I'll show the pitch contours overlaid on wide-band spectrograms, with aligned orthographic transcriptions courtesy of screen shots from the free software package Praat. If you aren't familiar with spectrograms, you can ignore the grey-scale pictures, and just focus on the pitch tracks, which are presented as blue-speckled time functions. I've left off the time and F0 scales, partly because Praat doesn't make it easy to show them in a useful way, and partly because I've given you links to the audio, so you can recover missing details for yourself if you care to.

Scieszka reads part of one of his books, which presents the story of the Three Little Pigs from the wolf's point of view. Christie is not entirely convinced: "He said that he might have just sneezed, but it's not like that in, like, the real story." And both of these two phrases involve rising accents and final rises:

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Note that in both the above examples, the first accented syllable is high ("said" and "not"), while the last accented syllable ("sneezed" and "real") is in each case the lowest point in the phrase.

The teacher then asks "So are you saying this *isn't* the real story?", and Christie responds "Well, I really don't think that anybody really knows":

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Again, there's a high-pitch target at the end of the stressed syllable in "really", while the lowest point in the phrase is well into the final accented syllable "knows".

Unfortunately, we lose much of Christie's analysis to some adult voice-overs, but we pick up a bit more at the end:

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In that example, the last accented syllable ("wolf") is separated by four syllables from the end of the phrase, and so we can see that there is an accent-associated rise (just after "wolf") and a separate boundary-associated rise (at the end of "guy"). Uptalk phrases sometimes have this boundary-associated rise and sometimes lack it — neither its presence nor its absence is diagnostic of the category.

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And in those two phrases as well as the earlier ones, the final accent-associated rise starts from the bottom of the speaker's pitch range. This pattern is common in the uptalk examples that I've seen. However, it's inconsistent with the implications of the name "High Rising Terminal" (HRT), which is often used as a technical term for uptalk, and the corresponding idea that (as the generally rather misleading Wikipedia article puts it) uptalk "is marked by a high … pitch … beginning on the final accented syllable near the end of the statement …, and continuing to increase in frequency … to the end of the intonational phrase". A rise starting in the middle of the speaker's range, stepping up from earlier low pitches, is also sometimes encountered; but the suggestion that all uptalk rises are of this type is false.

A bit later in the Scieszka segment, another student, Carly Rovner, gives her analysis of his oeuvre:

All his books kind of connect, because all of the characters are either running away from something, or running to find something. But it's interesting along the way, like if they make stops, it's either funny or interesting and you just want to keep reading.

This passage features several examples of uptalk. Thus

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This one has an additional feature of interest on the sequence "*all* his books", which has an accent-associated rise on "all", with the peak delayed until the following (weak) syllable "his".

And next,

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In that last example, there are three accented syllables (the main stresses of "characters", "running", and "away"), and have associated rises where the low point is part-way through the stressed syllable, with the high point occuring one or two unstressed syllables later. Note also that in this case, there's no extra boundary-associated rise.

Not all Carly's phrases end in rises — thus the next one:

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The adults in this segment don't give us any examples of uptalk. However, they contribute a couple of yes-no questions, and it may be worth taking a look at them. Early on, we hear Jon Scieszka reading in the character of the Big Bad Wolf:

He had built his whole house out of straw. Can you believe it? I mean, who in his right mind would build a house of straw?

Here's his performance of the question:

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Note that the pitch accent on "can" looks rather like Carly's accents on e.g. "characters" or "running" — but the accent on "believe" early in the [l], and is rising from the beginning of the vowel of the stressed syllable. This kind of variation in the timing of the rise relative to the consonant-vowel sequence is typical of rising-intonation yes-no questions — rhetorical and otherwise — but also of instances of uptalk.

And a bit later in the segment, as we noted, the teacher (identified as Sandra DiRe) asks Christie a question:

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Note here that the pitch accent on "saying" appears to involve simply a stretch of high pitch spread more or less all across the word; but the contrastive accent on "isn't" clearly involves a low target on the stressed syllable with a rise on the following unstressed syllable.

As these examples suggest, the intonational patterns of uptalk do seem to overlap with those of stereotypical rising yes-no questions. It remains possible that there are statistical differences in the relative frequency of some features — the timing of the start of the rise relative to the nuclear syllable, whether the post-nuclear pattern is rising, level or falling, etc. — but there are apparently no categorical differences. (The same thing is probably true with respect to the rises associated with non-terminal elements in lists, though I've presented no examples of that here.)

I haven't forgotten Eric Armstrong's comment on an earlier post ("Uptalk vs. UNBI again", 11/23/2008):

I have one student in my class right now who only uses uptalk in everyday life, but when acting, she can and does turn it off. [...] Her acting is really lovely, and the fear is that she'll wow the auditioners with her acting and then lose the job in the interview that follows.

The reality is that the PERCEPTION of uptalkers is that they are stupid. This has nothing to do with the intelligence level of this actor. It has everything to do with the prejudices of the people who might be hiring her. [...]

… anytime that she becomes less sure of herself, less clear on whether she's actually finishing what she's saying, the uptalk (and the sustained last word) come running back. The reality is that when she is unassertive and tentative, she starts speaking in uptalk. [...]

… this Canadian woman does NOT feel powerful when she speaks in this manner, and … credits her use of uptalk to a family that didn't allow her to feel powerful and where she was never allowed to "be right." [...]

Her own descriptions of how speaking in that manner makes her feel seem to reinforce the "stereotype" of how uptalk is perceived. Perhaps she has been indoctrinated to believe this? Or could it possibly be that there are confident uptalkers and anxious uptalkers?

These are among the many questions about the intonation of North American English for which the only currently-available answers are anecdotal. Adding my own evaluation to the available anecdotes, let me observe that I don't perceive Christie and Carly as stupid, anxious, unassertive, or tentative — on the contrary, they sound bright, insightful, engaged, and eager to communicate their insights. It seems very unlikely to me that they've been intellectually suppressed, either in Ms. DiRe's classroom or in other contexts.

It's clear that many people have the sorts of strongly negative associations to (some instances of) uptalk that Eric describes, perceiving it as stupid, unassertive, tentative, monotonously list-like, etc. I suspect that these reactions show the usual characteristics of group stereotypes — uptalk is much more likely to register as a problem when it's produced by an insecure or garrulous young person, than when the speaker is a star male athlete or a middle-aged political leader.

To the extent that Christie and Carly represent the future of American English, these attitudes will eventually disappear. Meanwhile, just as people can choose to "dress for success", they should have the option to adopt ways of speaking that make the kind of impression they want. There's some danger of seeming like a phony, as always with make-overs, linguistic or otherwise; but the alternative would be to say that everyone must remain forever in the cultural patterns of their childhood.

Modern phonetics began, in part, in an effort to help people choose their own linguistic wardrobe, so to speak. According to a Transwiki article, Alexander Melville Bell's Standard Elocutionist, first published in 1860, "appeared in 168 British editions and sold over a quarter of a million copies in the United States alone". (Perhaps a better analogy in this case would be linguistic body-building rather than linguistic wardrobe acquisition, but still…)

As George Bernard Shaw wrote in the Preface to his play Pygmalion,

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen. [..] The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.

That hero, Henry Higgins, explains himself thus in the opening scene:

You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. I could even get her a place as lady's maid or shop assistant, which requires better English. Thats the sort of thing I do for commercial millionaires. And on the profits of it I do genuine scientific work in phonetics, and a little as a poet on Miltonic lines.

If Eric, in his role as a voice teacher, can help his students to transform their linguistic self-presentation in a way that makes them more confident and more successful, then more power to him. I wish that linguistic prejudices were less common and less potent — and I suspect that his students may often underestimate how successful they might be in overcoming those prejudices rather than evading them — but given the way the world works, it would be hypocritical to condemn their attempts to "address for success".

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10 Comments »

  1. Will said,

    November 30, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    Purely anecdotal, in fact, based entirely on the samples you played here, and this may have been covered in one of the other articles about uptalking (sorry, but I haven't read them all completely) but it certainly appears to me that these young people are using the rising pitch to indicate that the pause that follows is not the end of the sentence. Perhaps it is a mechanism to prevent being interrupted in the middle of a thought.

  2. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    November 30, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

    If the Wikipedia article is misleading, you should fix it. Every day maybe 50 or 100 people read that article, according to http://stats.grok.se/en/200811/High_rising_terminal — maybe it's the case that more people than that read Language Log (I'm guessing maybe 1000 people per day?) but they won't read *this blog post* that much into the indefinite future.

    I understand you don't have infinite time, and it can take a fair bit of time to explain one's position on a Wikipedia edit to the other editors' satisfaction (although usually it doesn't) but every problem you successfully fix is progress in the right direction and benefits every person who reads the article after that.

  3. Lazar said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 12:56 am

    Honestly, I've given up on trying to improve Wikipedia because it's so big, chaotic and riddled with shoddiness – I feel like I'm trying to bail the Titanic every time I make an edit. I hope it's replaced with something more organized and professional.

  4. dr pepper said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 1:11 am

    I once saw an old grammar book that included rules for intonation. It had sentences with slanted lines underneath to show the direction of pitch. The one example i can remember has one person saying "How are you?" with a steady rising pitch throughout. The other answers "I am fine." with a falling pitch that matches it.

  5. Denise said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 1:42 am

    Want another anecdote? Ever since the uptalking issue started, I have noticed that the person at the cubicle across from mine at work is an uptalker. He's a native-born male of Chinese immigrants in his late 30's, is as American as any other person I know, and works in IT. He's
    on my team but currently is on loan to another department as an expert in the technology they want to adopt. He calls into meetings from his desk a lot, and I can hear his side of the conversation, but I understand little of what he's saying since he's involved with a different part of the business now. However, when I hear him start uptalking in these phone meetings, I'm definitely getting a vibe of, "These people are ignorant and I need to educate them. I'll talk to them like a child so they'll realize even children understand the things I'm telling them." And this person is not considered stupid, unconfident, or any of the other labels being hurled at uptalkers. If anything, this pattern is helping him to be perceived as an expert in his specialized technology at our office.

  6. jaap said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 3:52 am

    "I've often chosed strikingly counter-stereotypical uptalkers"
    Sorry for the off-topic question, but is "chosed" a typo/thinko for "chosen", or is that a normal variation in (some dialect of) American English?

  7. Amy Stoller said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    "To the extent that Christie and Carly represent the future of American English, these attitudes will eventually disappear."

    Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chôse. What you say is no doubt true, if by the above you mean that upspeak will no longer be disparaged; but I don't believe that linguistic prejudices will disappear. When a new speech pattern emerges, it will surely be disdained by speakers of the old pattern.

  8. Aaron Davies said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    @jaap: nearly 1200:1 usage ratio in google, and that's before filtering out the occurrences as a surname; 99% odds it's a typo, at least for mark.

  9. Rick S said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 11:30 am

    Yet more anecdote, but…

    As this exploration of uptalk has progressed over the several posts, I've been paying close attention to my instinctive impressions of what uptalkers are communicating. I started out with the belief that, beyond its use in yes/no questions, there was only the valley girl submissiveness and search for affirmation. Then I realized, as Will says above, it's sometimes used to indicate that a thought is not completed or a conversation turn is not being yielded.

    In these children I recognize a new discourse purpose: To test whether one's conversation partner is following what was said, or needs more elaboration. In essence, it represents the unspoken question "Do you get what I'm saying?" In response, a wrinkled brow might cue the speaker to restate in another way before proceeding, or a disagreeing frown might evoke a more detailed explanation of the speaker's reasoning (or even a yield of the turn).

    Taking these interpretations all together, some discourse purposes of non-interrogative uptalk seem to be (1) to retain the conversation turn, while (2) inviting nonverbal feedback that directs the speaker's choice of what to say next, allowing him to avoid going on at length when the listener is unable or unwilling to follow. It might be motivated by a desire for approval, but it might just as well come from a wish to stay profitably connected.

    Of course, I'm not suggesting this covers all non-interrogative uses of uptalk; if it did, we wouldn't get uptalk when talking to a large audience (too many people to check for feedback).

  10. Question marks, uptalk, and HRT « Mackerel Economics said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    [...] is an association, I must add, that is stereotypical and not entirely true; Mark Liberman has shown that George W. Bush has the propensity to uptalk like a prepubescent girl in certain cases). Part [...]

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