Final rises

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As Eric Baković recently noted, there's been a lot of buzz about a presentation about "uptalk" by Amanda Ritchart and Amalia Arvaniti at the 2013 Acoustical Society meeting. All we have so far is a sort of press release  ("Do We All Speak Like Valley Girls? Uptalk in Southern Californian English", ASA Lay Language Papers, 12/5/2013), but this is enough to see that Ritchart and Arvaniti have made a valuable contribution.

They based their analysis on systematic analysis of a good-sized recorded dataset (23 "native speakers of SoCal English", who were asked to describe a muted video clip and to participate in a "map task" interaction). They distinguished among different interactional functions ("simple statement", "question", "floor holding", "confirmation request"), they systematically noted aspects of the location and extent of rises, and they based their conclusions on a statistical analysis of the interrelationship of these features.


Their main conclusions:

For the when of "uptalk", we found:

  • Rises were used significantly more often by female than male speakers
  • Speakers used rises significantly more often during the map task than when retelling the clip of the sitcom scene
  • Rises were always used to ask a question or request confirmation; 45% of floor holding and 16% of simple statements in the sample also ended in uptalk.

For the realization of "uptalk", we found:

  • When the rise was used for a simple statement, it began significantly later on in the utterance than when the rise was used for asking a question. In other words, different realizations of the rises were used for different discourse purposes.
  • The extent of the rise was significantly greater in questions and confirmation requests than in floor holding; in turn floor holding rises were significantly greater than those used for simple statements. Here again we see that different realizations of the rises were used for different discourse purposes.
  • Female speakers began their rises significantly later on in the utterance than male speakers.
  • Females used significantly larger rises than males.

From the discussion available so far, it's hard to evaluate these conclusions. We don't know what their criteria were for dividing transcripts into "statements" or other units, or for characterizing units as "simple statements", "floor holding", "confirmation request", etc. We don't know how they defined the starting point and the extent of the rises. And we don't know what they mean by "significantly", i.e. how big the differences really were. This will all be clarified by a fuller presentation of their results, and especially by the (I hope forthcoming) publication of their annotated dataset.

But we do know that it's wrong to imply that this phenomenon is a special characteristic of "SoCal English". The "Map Task" design comes originally from a project at Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1980s, whose annotated recordings were published in 1993 as the  HCRC Map Task corpus, documented here. And we don't have to listen to more than a few seconds of the first of the 128 sessions to hear final rises of various sorts:

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Of course, this might be because the Glasgow speakers in this dataset have the "Urban North British Rise", as well as because the "map task" interaction tends to make speakers more conscious of their step-by-step interaction with an interlocutor. So to get rid of the geographical effect, we can turn to a replication of the map task done in Canada a few years later, and published in 1996 as the DCIEM Sleep Deprivation Study (documented here). Again, the first few seconds of the first of 216 published interactions exhibits various sorts of final rises (the speaker in this case is a 23-year-old male soldier, recorded in 1994 in Toronto):

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It would be interesting to compare the distribution of rises in the HCRC and DCIEM map task datasets with Ritchart & Arvaniti's dataset — this would give us a sense of whether there's anything particular to SoCal in this phenomenon.  It's possible (and even likely) that there are differences in the phonetics of the rises, or in their interactional functions, or in their relative frequencies. But without such a comparison, we don't actually have any evidence — beyond stereotypes and anecdotes — of a special connection between these patterns and southern Californians, present or past.

And it's not just "map task" interactions where North Americans of all ages, regions, genders, and eras are likely to use rising intonations. Earlier today ("Once so ever") I noted a rise-replete recorded statement by Elytte Barbour, recently arrested for allegedly joining his bride in a "thrill killing":

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Mr. Barbour is young (22) but is apparently from North Carolina, not California.

For a sample of older speakers from an earlier time, I took a random dive into the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English. The first thing I listened to was the "Bank Products" segment (sbc0014), recorded 12/22/1993. The speaker is "Joe", a 45-year-old white male from Dupo, IL.  He's a loan officer in a small-town bank, and the setting is a loan meeting with two board members. About a third of his phrases end in rises, for example:

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From previous experience, I expected that talk-radio-host monologues would be a rich source of rises, and the first Michael Medved clip I sampled (full audio here) did not disappoint:

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Michael Medved, born 10/3/1948 in Philadelphia, was 64 years old at the time of this recording.

For an older female speaker, also not from southern California, we can turn to Hillary Clinton's recent speech (video here) accepting the Lantos Prize, in which she eulogized Nelson Mandela:

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These last rises may a rather different function from those we've seen so far — although the paired alternatives are connected with "and", and both members of each pair are present with rises, the pairing might be analogous to the "it might be A, or it might be B" disjunctive structures that are often prevented with paired rises and falls. I often find it difficult to assign specific utterances to a classification of rhetorical or interactional function, in part because I'm often tempted to invent a new category, as in this case . So a careful study of inter-annotator agreement (as was done for the "discourse act" classification applied to the HCRC map task corpus) would be a good idea.

For a systematic study of form and function in the (extensive) use of final rises among college-age women Texas in the 1980s, we can turn to Cynthia McLemore's work, described e.g. in "The interpretation of L*H in English", TLF 1991. The implications of this work remain largely unexplored. And here's a 1994 Connie Chung segment that features Dr. McLemore, and uses examples collected by interviewing random (male and female) students at Villanova (near Philadelphia):

I'm always glad to see linguistic research getting extensive media coverage — but the content of the media response to Ritchart & Arvaniti has been more than a little disappointing, for reasons that I hope will be obvious:

"'Valley Girl' dialect expanding to males", Phys Org 12/4/2013;
"Uptalk? Linguists Say It’s Not Just For So Cal ‘Valley Girls’ Anymore?", WBUR 12/4/2013;
Max Ehrenfreund, "Linguists explain how to tell statements from questions in Valley Girl talk", Washington Post 12/5/2013;
Melissa Hogenboom, "More men speaking in girls' 'dialect', study shows", BBC 12/5/2013
Tia Chose, "'Valley Girl' Talk Isn't Just For Women, Study Finds", Huffington Post 12/5/2013
Adrian Glick Kudler, "How Do You Know When A Valley Girl Is Asking A Question?", LA Curbed 12/5/2013

Some previous LLOG discussion of related issues:

"This is, like, such total crap?", 5/15/2005
"Uptalk uptick?", 12/15/2005
"Angry rises", 2/11/2006
"The Affect: Sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO", 3/22/2006
"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
"Uptalk anxiety", 9/7/2008
"The phonetics of uptalk", 9/13/2008
"Word (in)constancy", 9/16/2008
"Uptalk v. UNBI again", 11/23/2008
"Elementary-school uptalk", 11/30/2008
"Annals of uptalk: the python wrestler", 3/6/2010
"Uptalk awakening", 9/29/2013
"Okie uptalk", 11/10/2013

 

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7 Comments »

  1. maidhc said,

    December 8, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

    Michael Medved grew up in San Diego.

    [(myl) And he now lives in the L.A. area, so that's a point for the SoCal theory. And Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh seem to use a smaller proportion of final-rising phrases, which might be another point for SoCal geography (or Jewish ethnicity?) But Mr. Medved is male, and in his sixties, which is a point against the recent change-in-progress theory. And the extensive display of uptalk among Villanova students in the 1994 Connie Chung segment -- or the University of Texas undergrads that McLemore studied in the late 1980s -- is a pretty strong point against both.]

  2. Amalia Arvaniti said,

    December 9, 2013 @ 2:38 am

    We are thankful to Mark for all the uptalk resources and comments he has posted over the years; we have been consulting them for this research. I just wanted to clarify, however, that certain things mentioned in the press are (liberal) interpretations of what we said in interviews or the lay language ASA paper. For example, we never said or implied that US speakers outside California do not uptalk or that young males have only recently picked up uptalk. Our primary motivation was to document the form and function of uptalk in SoCal because there was so little systematic research on this particular variety compared to, say, Australian and New Zealand English uptalk and even UK varieties that uptalk.

    To answer, briefly, some of Mark's questions, which could not be addressed in the lay paper: typically the rise in questions starts on the stressed vowel of the word carrying the nucleus (usually the last word in the utterance), while in statements it starts after the vowel, often on the very last voiced segment. We interpret this as a difference between L* H-H% and L* L-H%. This representation accounts also for the difference in scaling between the question and statement rises: statement rises span on average 0.75 ERB, while question rises are almost twice as large (1.37 ERB on average).

    I stress that the above concerns straightforward questions and actual statements, not requests for confirmation. The utterances labelled as statements in the corpus came out of the blue and clearly did not require or elicit a response from the interlocutor that could be interpreted as confirmation. One of my favorites is the exchange between one of the participants and our RA at the end of a session: RA: Cool\ Thank you/ P: You're welcome/ Confirmation requests, on the other hand, were much more like questions (though more variable in realization), while floor holding was often realized as a plateau rather than a rise (reported also by Clopper and Smiljanic 2011 for varieties unrelated to SoCal).

    Overall, I agree that it would be very interesting to compare what uptalk is like and how it is used across varieties of English. For example, many of the illustrations of uptalk in Mark's post sound to me very different from SoCal uptalk either in form or in function, sometimes both. Such a systematic study should also help us understand the origins of uptalk.

  3. John Lawler said,

    December 9, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    Mention of O'Reilly and Limbaugh reminded me that the American radio commentator Paul Harvey used to have something like uptalk endings on many of his sentences.

    He had a very stylized delivery, immediately recognizable, and neatly timed to lead to the next item in time for the commercial (which he also delivered). There ought to be lots of recordings of him available, and his heyday was back in the 60s and 70s.

  4. Chris C. said,

    December 9, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

    I think your clip from Clinton was the same one I commented on the other day, only the sound-bite version on the radio started at "…to combine within oneself the contradictions…" and her pauses had been edited out. In context and with the cadences she actually used it made a much different impression.

  5. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 9, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

    I suspect that that uptalk spread from the San Fernando valley in the early 80s to San Dimas in 1989, and then to various particularly influential points, from which it was able to affect far-flung places and times. Small town Illinois was probably affected by Abraham Lincoln's mannerisms, even generations later, and he was sighted in San Dimas in 1989. It's obvious that SoCal regionalisms have spread worldwide not just because there are so many actors in Hollywood, but because there are so many time-travellers. As has become patently obvious with these historical examples, uptalk is not merely destroying western civilization now, but is destroying its past. If we don't stamp this threat out now, we may wake up to find not only that everyone is talking that that now, but that they always did.

    [(myl) And some Valley Girls clearly also visited the northern British isles towards the end of the first millennium A.D.: the stain has gone even deeper than you suspect.]

  6. Chris C. said,

    December 9, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    @Daniel — Please remember, as was quoted by Lincoln himself: Be excellent to each other.

  7. Dr. Robbin V. said,

    December 10, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    It's nice to see this example of a weblog mediating between the scientific literature and the popular press. "Uptalk", the term invented by a journalist in 1993, is a good term for the practice of ending assertions with rising pitch. "High rising terminal" or shorter "HRT", invented by linguists, is a bad term, making a false claim about the phonetics of the phenomenon. In my opinion it should be abandoned.

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