When Uptalk Went Viral

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This is a guest post by Cynthia McLemore, following up on Ben Zimmer's post on "'Uptalk' in the OED", 9/12/2016.

Twenty three years after James Gorman coined a word for “those rises” in the New York Times and unleashed a viral phenomenon associated with my name, and on the occasion of the OED's latest entries, Language Log has invited me to take stock of my experiences and offer some comments.

First, some background. In the late 1980s I started working to construct a theory of intonational meaning in English from the ground up. My aim was to gather facts about the intonational system as they occurred in natural settings in order to understand the role of culture and context in meaning-forming processes. I chose a sorority as the community to study because it had features of a natural speech “lab”: a social hierarchy, age stratification, recurrent contexts with consistent roles and expectations, homogeneity in ethnicity, gender, age, social class, religion, and regional affiliation, and pressure on speakers to conform to norms. In other words, identifiable socio-cultural parameters and reduced sources of variation.

One of the recurrent intonational forms I recorded and analyzed was a phrase-final rise used to introduce certain types of monologues in meetings and structure certain narratives. My Linguistics 101 students told me they heard it around campus and associated it with sororities. But while I was holed up in the lab scrutinizing pitchtracks of the sorority speech data, a broader use of those same phrase-final rises was spreading through American culture more generally. By 1991, when I started presenting my research on the more particular uses I’d found in the sorority — and the more abstract meanings I proposed for the intonational forms themselves — I was overwhelmed with invitations from various academic departments around the country, in addition to conferences, and gave over forty talks in little more than a year. Wherever I went, cab drivers, colleagues, friends and fellow travelers gave me their observations and opinions about “those rises.” Media interest was gaining in 1992 and 1993, but went right off the charts in August 1993 when the NYT published Gorman’s piece.

It Was Wild, Part 1

If a small piece of your work goes viral, here’s my advice:

1. Think about heading to New Zealand for an extended vacation. I hear they like to host a good party and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind managing your media presence. Recently they’ve made the gesture of adopting the American word “uptalk,” for better or worse, to describe the rises they previously called “high-rises” or “HRT”. But seriously: watch out for a massive professional backlash if the media focuses on you to the exclusion of others in your field. While you’re struggling to continue working in peace, you’ll be vilified for grandstanding. There are ways around this, but good luck if you’re challenging the status quo in a specialty that has only a handful of active researchers with a history of marginalization and infighting. I’m still the only linguist I know who's been physically accosted in anger at a conference. Or whose data were challenged so viciously that graduate students in attendance walked away saying they’d never give a conference talk.

In 1993, there was no internet (as we know it now), so “viral” meant that the landline rang off the hook. A dozen calls a day, then two a day, then three a week, for years. Newspapers from around the country, then the world; radio stations, television news shows, talk shows. (I didn’t do talk shows. But shout out to Marilu Henner: your staff was wonderful. Nor did I have time for art, and I regret having to turn down the French filmmaker.) Back then you could find anybody’s address and phone number listed in a paper book by name, so regular citizens were free to call up, unidentified because there was no caller ID, and ask e.g. why the interns in their midwestern offices talked that way. It was overwhelming, but it wasn’t isolating and crazy-making in the way it seems to be when something goes viral on the internet. Depending on the degree of stigma associated with the attention, people who experience that sometimes really do go on extended vacations to far-away islands.

2. Always take the call from Robert Siegel. On “All Things Considered,” they really do consider things. Of course, radio is naturally the best medium for intonation, but the program they aired in June 1993 — before the NYT piece — is a model for how to cover an issue that straddles academic research and popular interest. Not only did they seek out a wide range of people to interview, they hit the pavement with a tape recorder and talked to high school students for their own mini-study. I still use this clip when I talk about the problem of intonational introspection and the limits of awareness. The meta-commentary by contour is poetic. This is a high school student talking about rises:

um one thing I have noticed?
I think it’s more um prevalent with younger people?—
more in I think junior high school?
people would tend to use that.
and now as you get older in high school, it’s pretty much disappeared.
I would think.
I haven’t heard it for awhile.

[Pitch tracks available here.]

That’s not the classic uptalk I saw in the sorority, because the rise on “(young)er people” levels a bit, but then again the speaker is simultaneously mentioning a group that uses those rises, echoing their use, and distancing herself from them.

3. Get help in handling the media. “Uptalk” seemed like a silly word about a trend that was only tangentially related to my research. I wasn’t selling anything and had no use for the spotlight. Perhaps naively, I thought the media feeding frenzy would die down and a space for serious discussion would open up. But thousands of stories about uptalk ended up mentioning my name, and only a handful accurately reflected the long answers I gave as I tried in vain to resist the sound bite. More on that below.

The slick ways of handling the media you see now make 1993-me feel like a schlub. I didn’t think it was necessary, or even possible, to correct all the shockingly unrecognizable things linked publicly to my work. What I didn’t anticipate was that scholars would describe and refer to my research findings and proposals based on distortions in the media — which would then be repeated by other scholars — instead of reading primary sources. One well-regarded book has me setting out to study the sorority in order to investigate how young girls use uptalk. Yikes.

On the bright side, I still meet people who heard the NPR piece and say they've been listening to uptalk all these years thinking about how it elicits a response. And my late grandmother and her friends in rural Texas never got over the thrill of seeing me on that prime time Connie Chung episode.

It Was Wild, Part 2

When uptalk roared onto the scene, I had all too recently gotten my mind around intonational function, and hadn’t adequately solved the problem at hand: how do you communicate about the way this complex and fascinating aspect of language works? How do you explain the beauty of a single contour performing several communicative tasks at once? Especially when even linguists have struggled to grasp the whole story, trained as they are to focus on only one of the relevant domains — the sentence, discourse, interactive conversation, social identity, information structure, phonetics, phonology, machine manipulation.

I had great examples to cite. Here you can see it’s the leaders of the group introducing new information and optional activities. Here it’s a provisional member whose other speech cues send you down the interpretive path toward uncertainty. Here you can see it used on vocatives for attracting the attention of a portion of the larger audience, similar to the way it elicits head nods when used in a monologue.The generalization I proposed for the phrase-final rise, in contrast to falls and levels, is that it functions as an iconic connector throughout interpretive domains with more specific and vivid “meanings” drawn from other sources of information in a given discourse and situation in the culture. It’s simultaneously iconic and indexical, the indexical aspect (use-context co-occurences) leading to shared conventions over time — which, in the sorority, I was able to identify. And don’t forget a rise has a high peak, albeit an incomplete one, which means it tends to mark new and highlighted information as opposed to the known and the backgrounded.

Try telling that to a dashing young reporter in a trench coat who’s hounded you nonstop for lunch. He might write something like “McLemore has no answer,” and send it out to newspapers around the world, mumbling that he should call Connie Chung to find out what uptalk really means.

That was bad enough. But the stereotypes! In academia during the ‘90s, there was a small but disturbing amount of snickering and trivialization of my work because the speech community I’d studied was “sorority girls.” It came as much from professional women as from men. Informally introducing me to colleagues as a “sorority girl” was one way of undermining my work. I hadn’t been in a sorority, but this community had opened its doors to me, and I was very hesitant to expose them by proxy to some of the attitudes I encountered. That kind of reaction became my way of judging whether or not someone was serious about ideas. Surely things are different in 2016.

But 23 years later, Mark Liberman and Penny Eckert are still explaining why uptalk doesn’t always mean uncertainty. As research has continued to demonstrate, the most conspicuous missing piece is an understanding of context and culture: when you don’t have a clear idea about what sort of contextual factors constrain the interpretation of a particular use to create an apparent “meaning,” you default to the most general de-contextualized stereotype at hand, usually an emotional one.

Intonation: The Movement?

The phenomenon of uptalk gave rise to a dramatic increase in awareness about intonation in American culture, and perhaps more widely as far as I know. More people recognize it when they hear their kindergartners talk that way. (Do the 5-year-olds still uptalk?) Characterizations of intonational presentation have shown up in some recent prominent novels, and they work. You didn’t see as much of that 23 years ago.

These days it’s easier to capture intonation in the wild. In the ’80s and early '90s, we waited hours for computers, with their limited memory, to handle speech files, then painstakingly hand-corrected doubling errors introduced by the software. And we were only able to get the software as a professional courtesy from Mark Liberman, then at Bell Labs. Now you can record speech on your smart phone and pitchtrack it with free software on your laptop. A free pitchtracking app for smart phones and tablets will no doubt be available soon.

In 1993 I couldn’t imagine how we’d ever get a handle on the dialectal differences in intonation across the country, nevermind the seemingly endless variation in conversation and the lightning-fast spread of trends. But in 2016 it’s easy to imagine a crowd-sourced solution to charting the intonational landscape. The radical move in an academic climate that privileges decontextualized computer speech research would be to hold a place for human contexts. I hear that Liberman, no stranger to revolutionary movements, has reserved the domain name “intonationunderground.”

Above is a guest post by Cynthia McLemore.

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