Uptalk: everything is a question?

3 minute read

I’m very interested in linguistic as well and I recently stumbled on a few articles detailing the recent evolution of a particular linguistic inflection, called “uptalk”, “high rising terminal” or “valley girl talk”.

I used to speak in a regular voice. I was able to assert, demand, question. Then I started teaching. At a university? And my students had this rising intonation thing? It was particularly noticeable on telephone messages. “Hello? Professor Gorman? This is Albert? From feature writing?” […]

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.” […]

Once commercial airline pilots start using uptalk, McLemore notes, it will mean that a full-blown dialect shift has occurred. Uptalk won’t be uptalk anymore. It will be, like, American English?
— James Gorman (1993) Like, Uptalk?

Here’s a video example of uptalk.

There are a lot of interesting details here. The first is that while it’s a simple and easy to spot inflection and as such it’s easy to notice its spread over different areas and countries, it’s still hard to track. It seems that it originated as a way of talking of the adolescent girls in California, and it inherited the name “Valley Girl” from a Frank Zappa song that highlights that intonation.

It’s even more interesting because while it’s commonly perceived as a adolescent, immature or low-class inflexion, some researches noticed some different scenarios:

McLemore studied intonation in one very particular context. She observed uses of intonation in a Texas sorority, where uptalk was not at all about uncertainty or deference. It was used most commonly by the leaders, the senior officers. Uptalk was a kind of accent, or tag, to highlight new information for listeners: “We’re having a bake sale? On the west mall? On Sunday?” When saying something like “Everyone should know that your dues should be in,” they used a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.
— Gorman James (1993) Like, Uptalk?

New studies show that people who use uptalk are not insecure wallflowers but powerful speakers who like getting their own way: teachers, talk-show hosts, politicians and facetious shop assistants.

Mark Liberman, a phonetician at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been monitoring George W. Bush’s speeches on his fascinating weblog Language Log, points out that the President has started peppering his Iraq speeches with HRTs. Why? Not, apparently, because Bush’s confidence is failing him. Rather, it has more to do with an aggressive need to direct conversation.
— Marsh Stefanie (2006) The rise of the interrogatory statement

That’s even more interesting, because if it’s validated as it seems happening, it might point out that adolescent girls are in fact the ones that are more able to evolve the language as a whole.

But linguists now say […] Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.
“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.” […]
Carmen Fought a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”
— Quenqua Douglas (2012) They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve

This overall is an excellent example of spoken language evolution: its birth, usage, diffusion and perception. And also how we try to understand it and, sometimes, can’t just avoid it.