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The recent flurry about "TikTalk" seems to have started with Rochelle Barrand, "TikTok: 'Influencer speak' on social media platforms is likely to be the future of the English accent – expert", NationalWorld 11/22/2023:

A language expert said a "TikTok voice" which is often used by influencers on social media platforms is likely to be "the future of the English language".

Linguistics professor Christopher Strelluf claims we are seeing a new use of language which has been fuelled by female influencers online and also celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande.

The 'TikTok accent', which is also called 'TikTalk', or 'Internet voice' is when influencers use a vlogger-style voice and intonation and, as a result, this means everyone sounds similar, regardless of their individual voice tones and accents.

Strelluf, who is an associate professor of linguistics at Warwick University, explained the use of features called 'uptalk' and 'vocal fry' are commonly seen in this style of speech. He said everyone already uses those features of language but young people, particularly women, are using it in an "innovative way".

The article doesn't tell us what this "innovative way" actually is, and I haven't found any publications or presentations by Prof. Strelluf to enlighten us.  My guess is that the whole idea came from the reporter, Ms. Barrand, who just pulled a few sensible quotations from him to shore up a click-bait-y article on "female influencers and celebrities". And it worked — the bait has been picked up by (literally) dozens of outlets, from The New York Post and Distractify to Fox News and the BBC.

As Strelluf observes, "uptalk" and "vocal fry" are already Out There. And in fact, viral reactions to them have also been Out There for a long time.

TikTok first became available in the U.S. in 2017, but there was a big deal in 2011 about the alleged spread of "vocal fry" among young American women. See "Vocal fry: 'creeping in' or 'still here'?", 12/12/2011, which takes such vocalizations back to Cheech Marin, Mae West, and our distant primate ancestors. See also "Vocal creak and fry, exemplified", 2/7/2015, which discusses some of the (many) speech properties that people call "vocal fry". And finally, "What does 'vocal fry' mean?", 8/20/2015, which explains that

There are lots of ideas out there about what vocal fry "means", or rather, what people convey by using it. It's been identified as a "city girl squawk" associated with upper-middle-class New Yorkers; as an imitation of California Valley Girl style; as a vocal pathology; as a consequence of aging; as an attempt to sound serious by using a low pitch; as an attempt to sound sexy; and now as a way to convey interpersonal indifference.

There are several quite different physical speech characteristics lumped together under the careless pop usage of the term "vocal fry", so it's possible that these radically different interpretations actually attach to different physical phenomena. But I think this is mostly just the normal mutability of meaning.

What someone "means" by dressing in a certain way doesn't depend on the intrinsic interpretation of their clothing as a collection of physical objects, even though there's a certain amount more-or-less natural symbolism involved. The interpretation of clothes depends on layers of marketing and indexicality and irony, with different observers and different contexts producing very different results.

As for "uptalk", that's back to the (even further back) future for Language Log — see "Uptalk anxiety", 9/7/2008:

In her 1991 dissertation, [and this excerpted 1990 paper about rises] Cynthia McLemore suggested that final rises iconically signal some kind of connection. This might be a connection between ideas, as in non-terminal list items; or it might be a connection between speaker and hearer, as in a question and the answer or a statement and the listeners' attention. But she pointed out that this kind of reaching out to listeners need not be a sign of insecurity or even politeness. And in her data, taken from a careful study of the role of intonation in a University of Texas sorority, final rises were associated with statements by more senior and more powerful members that required audience attention and action.

And see also James Gorman, "On Language: Like, Uptalk?", NYT Magazine 8/15/1993:

The sorority members' own interpretation of uptalk was that it was a way of being inclusive. McLemore's conclusions are somewhat similar. She says the rises are used to connect phrases, and to connect the speaker to the listener, as a means of "getting the other person involved."

Nobody seems to be saying that the TikTok influencers using “uptalk,” along with vocal fry and perhaps other stylistic markers, are insecure or uncertain. They’re influencers, right?

Today, the sorority members McLemore studied would be 52-56 years old. The women on TikTok whose speech style is under scrutiny would be the next generation, or two — their daughters, or even granddaughters.

Imagine that.


  1. Chris Button said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 4:03 pm

    Maybe they are envisioning a future where we all to sing to each other instead of talk. That should effectively knock out most of the prosodic/suprasegmental differences.

  2. Joe said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 4:49 pm

    If "TikTok voice" is actually as described in the article, then maybe I haven't noticed it because that's just how a lot of people under 40? 50? 60? already talked in normal everyday life when TikTok was still just a twinkle in Xi Jinping's eye. I guess if you were a Boomer with only Boomer friends watching TikTok for the first time, you might think "so that's where my grandchildren get it!"

    I have however met someone in real life who had YouTube voice. I couldn't quite place the features but it had more to do with overall pacing and intonation, and what distinguished it was how unnatural it sounded in a real-life conversation rather than a lively scripted video monologue. Later on I found out he actually did have his own small YouTube channel.

    I suspect there really is a homogenizing "TikTok voice" and it's distinct from the YouTube one, but it doesn't sound like these linguists are getting any closer to defining it.

  3. Heddwen Newton said,

    February 28, 2024 @ 11:17 am

    I agree with most of this.

    I did like the point made in the BBC article that the uptalk in "TikTalk" is used to signal that there is always something else coming; that the listener should keep listening. It's also something in the melody, and the speed. (My own subjective observation.) This way of speaking does feel new-ish to me, even if it is mostly an exaggeration of what was already going on.

    What I also think is interesting is that this way of talking is accent-independent.

  4. Around the web – February 2024 | A Smart Translator's Reunion said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 7:24 am

    […] (such as this BBC Future article) about a TikTok-specific accent named "TikTalk", but Language Log isn't actually convinced it's a new […]

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