Uptalk in Devon

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"The unstoppable march of the upward inflection?", BBC News Magazine 8/11/2014, quoted me referencing Daniel Hirst's idea about a possible Scandinavian origin for the long-standing pattern of default rising intonations in northern England, Scotland, and northern Ireland. In response, Dave Goodwin sent me this interesting note about rising intonations in Devon:

I am a born & bred Devonian in the westcountry of the UK, though neither side of my family are from these parts.  I do not have a traditional Devon accent by when I went off up country to University (over 20 years ago now) one friend there picked me as being from Devon, whilst everyone else was at a loss as to where I was from, other than somewhere in the south.

Having asked how she guessed she said her older brother had been studying at the University of Exeter (in Devon) & she had often visited him, then gave her reason as having noticed the locals round these parts had the inflection, albeit not as over emphasised as the Australians, for example, do.  I had never really noticed it before but started hearing all my friends back home using it as well as a great many of their parents/siblings etc.

Dave also offered a suggestion about where to look for evidence:

Around the time of the Millennium I was working for a community folk arts charity here, Wren Music, who were interested in the linguistics of Devon accents as well as the folk songs traditionally song round here.  Before joining them they had devoted many hours to recording the older generation just talking & singing, relaying the stories etc. before the tales risked being lost with their passing.

Sure enough you can spot the rising inflection in the recordings I had a chance to listen to.  A great many of those who ended up in new world & Australia etc. came from these parts (though that is not to imply that folk from all over the UK emigrated stateside/down under.

Unfortunately, Wren Music's catalog items are only available via physical shipment of CDs. But there are plenty of possible sources on line, for example this "conversation in Portbridge" from BBC Voices, which certain does seem to have mostly final rises — but also this BBC video interview "BBC Dartmoor sisters 'proud' of Devon accent", which doesn't.

I'll try for a slightly more systematic set of anecdotes later.




  1. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 5:22 am

    I've heard it alleged that California uptalk spread from Down Under to the LA area by infecting some members of the surf culture. It would be really interesting if the pandemic turned out to have originated in Devon.

  2. Suburbanbanshee said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 6:10 am

    Well, there were Scandinavian settlements in Devon, but I think it was a while back. :)

  3. un malpaso said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    Hmmm, why not a Celtic origin? If Southwest England (and Wales) is included as well, that seems to make more sense. (Although I have no idea if speakers of proto-Celtic used uptalk, and I'm pretty sure it would be unprovable anyway).
    That would be interesting… migration from Celtic Europe, to Australia, to California, to the rest of the US and UK… :)

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    I don't really know the details, but I believe there has been some work over the years trying to trace the impact on different regional accents in the U.S. on dialect differences in the early Anglophone settlers (it wasn't as if all the North American colonies were initially settled by the same balanced cross-section of the English population – the geographical origin within England of early settlers of Massachusetts is thought to have been skewed in a different way than e.g. the early settlers of Virginia). Of course, for many pronunciation features, there's a lot of guesswork involved because both the American regional variants and English regional variants now may be significantly different from what they were in the same places three or four centuries ago and we don't have tape recordings from the colonial period. I think the standard account is that the early settlers of the Tidewater south (not up in the hills, which was more Scotch-Irish) were overweight with people from the West Country, but to the extent back then Devon speech was in some respects different from Somerset or Gloucestershire or what have you, I don't know about that level of precision. And the East-Anglian skew in the origin of the early Puritan New Englanders certainly wasn't 100% – I have a remote ancestor who was probably born in Devon but went on to play a part in the early history of New London, Ct.

  5. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    Both West Country and East Anglian influence is easy to see in the North American accents. The younger extraterritorial varieties (the "Southern Hemisphere" accents) have more in common with the Southeast (including London). I'd say that the accents of English used overseas (no matter how different from each other) are generally of a "Southern" type. At least as regards phonology, they show few if any features associated with Northern England (or Scottish and Hiberno-English, for that matter, except in some specific areas), while they share the typical Southern innovations. This is surely due to some kind of founder effect.

  6. Sidney Wood said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

    Australians, New Zealanders, Californians, Northern Irelanders do it. Now the older generation of Devonians are recorded doing it. And Henry Sweet heard the Scots doing it in the 1870s. And I've just been listening to recordings of people born in Kent in the 1880s, and they all did it. Who's next?

  7. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    @ Sidney Wood –

    Geordies! Really extreme rises.

  8. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 4:30 am

    @ Piotr Gąsiorowski: (Hi Piotr, BTW.) Founder effect, maybe, but what about the direction of any dialect levelling that followed? That hasn't been quite random, has it?

    Think of rhoticity in New Zealand, for example (one of the very few cases where we do have some real data). NZ has gone from, let's say, "quite mixed" to overwhelmingly non-rhotic… Quite unlike NYC ;)

  9. Rodger C said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:02 am

    Michael Montgomery, iirc, says that Appalachian speech combines a great deal of Scotch-Irish vocabulary and grammar influence with a basically West Country phonology.

  10. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    Jarek: The whole point about the founder effect is that the initial relative frequency of competing variants in a colonial community is different from that in the "mother" population because of imperfect sampling. That in the "new" (non-American) colonies was roughly representative of SE England rather than the whole of Britain.

    The probability of fixation by random drift alone equals the initial frequency of a variant. Of course forces other than drift also play a role. The return of rhoticity to NYC was due to the impact of a more prestigious "national" pronunciation.
    When New Zealand was colonised by the British, even the Home Counties were not yet monolithically non-rhotic. The influx of new arrivals from Britain in the following decades favoured the same direction of development as in "mainstream" British English (independently of drift, which favoured the pronunciation that was already more frequent locally).

  11. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 10:41 am

    @ Piotr:

    The whole point about the founder effect is that the initial relative frequency […] is different from that in the "mother" population because of imperfect sampling.

    I thought the point was more about losing variability because you wouldn't get the complete range of variants, and the resulting "new" variability being strongly guided by what pool of variants happened to be available. But I'm probably nitpicking (or being naive).

    fixation by random drift alone […]. Of course forces other than drift also play a role.

    That was exactly what I was trying to allude to. Things that are "valuable" sociolinguistically may derail the drift, or indeed reverse it.

    (For a second, I wanted to say "will", but no time today to think about it in more depth.)

    even the Home Counties were not yet monolithically non-rhotic

    Exactly. And the proportion of Scottish settlers was pretty high… And the rhoticity rates were up to 50% in some places (at least according to Gordon & co.). But still the remaining pockets of rhoticity (if there are any left?) are deelpy recessive.

  12. Toni Borowsky said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    Watch this- the young girl speaking close to the beginning – around the one minute mark

    Sounds like uptalk to me.

    I don't know the language but the other speakers don't seem to be doing it.

    If this IS uptalk, people may have to rethink the origins.

  13. Nate said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

    "Both West Country and East Anglian influence is easy to see in the North American accents."

    Did those accents influence North American accents or did all English accents used to be more like them than they are today?

  14. Nate said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    That was a reply to Piotr

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