Jewish uptalk?

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Corey Robin, "Was Bigger Thomas an Uptalker?" (10/18/2017), describes a bit of fictional forensic sociolinguistics:

The funniest moment in Native Son (not a novel known for its comedy, I know): when the detective, Mr. Britten, is asking the housekeeper, Peggy, a bunch of questions about Bigger Thomas, to see if Thomas is in fact a Communist.

Britten: When he talks, does he wave his hands around a lot, like he’s been around a lot of Jews?

Peggy: I never noticed, Mr. Britten.

Britten: Now, listen, Peggy. Think and try to remember if his voice goes up when he talks, like Jews, when they talk. Know what I mean? You see, Peggy, I’m trying to find out if he’s been around Communists.

If Richard Wright is referring to uptalk-like final rises, this is a stereotype that I've managed to miss out on. Question to readers: Is this something you've encountered, either as fable or as fact?

A description like "his voice goes up" covers a lot of territory in intonation. Several decades of work on American Jewish intonation follows Uriel Weinreich's 1956 article ("Notes on the Yiddish Rise-Fall Intonation" (in M. Halle, Ed., For Roman Jakobson) in identifying a stereotypically Jewish rise-fall intonation. I don't have a copy of Weinreich's article at hand, but Zelda Newman, "The Jewish Sound of Speech: Talmudic Chant, Yiddish Intonation and the Origins of Early Ashkenaz", The Jewish Quarterly Review 2000, described it this way:

In a paper written over forty years ago entitled "Notes on the Yiddish Rise-Fall Intonation Contour," Uriel Weinreich claimed that "the connection between talmudic chant (gemoro nign) and the intonation of complex sentences in spoken Yiddish is intimate." Weinreich isolated one intonation contour in Yiddish — the rise-fall contour-and suggested that it would "be necessary to study talmudic chant in search for analogues of the rise-fall intonation contour." 

So maybe Britten's question about whether "his voice goes up when he talks, like Jews, when they talk" is referring to rise-falls rather than final rises.

[h/t Cynthia McLemore]



  1. Phillip Minden said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:08 pm

    Up yes, but not phrase final.

  2. Steve said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:09 pm

    Could this just refer to loudness? Stereotype is that Jews are loud.

  3. Phillip Minden said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:27 pm

    No, higher pitch, sometimes with higher volume, on the phrasal stress.

  4. Steve said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

    Look at the original text:

    “…his voice goes up when he talks…”

    Among non-language-science types, especially when that was written, I think it’s far more likely to mean volume than pitch. If someone in that book had said “keep your voice down” there would be no chance of them meaning the tone, they would have meant the volume, right?

  5. Phillip Minden said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:52 pm

    Do you know the stereotypical suprasegmental character of speech associated with (Eastern European) Jews?

  6. chris said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 9:05 pm

    Some Yiddishisms (which are real, but often exaggerated for comic or stereotypical effect) take the form of questions, like "what's not to like?" or "you want I should X?". But IDK if that leads to a perceived (or, for that matter, real) greater amount of question-formed utterances among Jews than Gentiles.

  7. Roscoe said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 9:26 pm

    There’s also the stereotype that Jews always answer a question with another question…

  8. Brian Hillcoat said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 4:31 am

    And as Joeph Heller pointed out in 'Good as Gold' this started really early. Genesis IV, 9: And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?.

  9. Brett said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 12:30 pm

    I have heard the stereotype that, with Ashkenazic Jews, everything sounds like a question, whether or not it is one.

  10. Phillip Minden said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    Very strange. The stereotypical EE Jewish intonation is very different from uptalk/valley girl/ending-like-a-question.

  11. Keith said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 4:31 am

    This post reminds me of a TV ad for BT in the 1980s, where Maureen Lipman is speaking to her nephew over the phone, about his exam results.

  12. Keith said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 4:33 am

    I tried to include a link around Maureen Lipman's name to the Wikipedia article about her.

  13. John O'Toole said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 10:46 am

    This is what Mr. Britten is referring to, no?

  14. maidhc said,

    August 1, 2018 @ 5:47 pm

    A Jewish friend of mine years ago told me

    If someone addresses a statement to you, reply "I should be so lucky"
    If someone addresses a question to you, reply "Don't ask"

    Neither one of which is a question

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