The Uptalk Menace

A week I attended a talk by Ellen Reeves, Senior Editor at Change.org.  She also happened to have studied irony and sarcasm at HGSE’s Project Zero and had trained with Second City, which did nothing but endear her to me with all my years attempting to create theatrical works of art with other clueless middle schoolers at various afterschool programs.  Her primary role at this event, though, was as author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?, a guide to business networking presented through the immediately compelling lens of going after your first job.

As a perennial people person, I understood much of what she was getting at with her tips on how to make instant and lasting connections with people who might be helpful to know in the job search process.  As a linguistics concentrator, though, something stuck out to me in her dizzying array of do’s and don’ts.  “Be careful not to use uptalk,” she instructed us.  “Uptalk is when you sound like all of your sentences are questions?  When you talk like this?  It’s very valley-girl and it doesn’t make a good impression.”  The lesson hammered home, she moved on.

This 10-second sound byte fascinated me because I’ve rarely heard the term “uptalk” used or the concept specifically addressed outside of the rarified atmosphere of a Harvard linguistics classroom.  A couple years ago I took a course called “Prosody and Intonation” as part of my concentration – it was the first course dealing with this particular subject, and in it I learned all about the voice’s various rises and falls in pitch during speech and what these undulations mean for the structure and the meaning of the utterances.  Here’s what our textbook (English Intonation: An Introduction by J.C. Wells) had to say about uptalk:

Since about 1980 a new use of a rising tone on statements has started to be heard in English.  It is used under circumstances in which a fall[ing tone] would have been used by an earlier generation (and a fall is still felt to be more appropriate by most native speakers of English … It is speculated that it originated in New Zealand, although other claimed sources are Australia, California, and British regional accents. (37)

Textbook contrast between “standard” and “uptalk” intonation: [sound file here]

Well, I never!  The slight consternation in Mr. Wells’ otherwise persistently objective tone raises some warning flags.  There is a generation gap here between the linguistically conservative vanguard and the young upstarts, whose rather scandalous way of imbuing statements with a rising intonation is a recent outbreak from the rapidly evolving, mongrelized speech of linguistic communities on the fringe.  New Zealand and Australia are not where proper English comes from; neither is California, with its valley girls and noveau riche, nor regional British accents (see, for example, the Cockney accent).

If there’s any further doubt as to the venerated prosodic establishment’s take on youngsters’ lack of prosodic assertiveness,  watch a bit of this clip of British writer, actor/comedian, and language pundit (also, apparently, national treasure) Stephen Fry on the talk show 101:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hnABeM2I7c#t=7m55s

[Stephen Fry sounds off somewhat caustically on “Australian Question Intonation,” aka uptalk, calling it “the language of the Sunny Delight generation.”]

Ladies and gentlemen, there is no better way than this to get amazing press if you happen to be a young, fresh-faced sociophonetic phenomenon trying to get your name on people’s lips.  When acclaimed British culture-mongers and speakers at Harvard alumni events (not to mention J. C. Wells) denounce you as as pestilential influence on the genteel English of the upper middle class, you know you’ve hit the top.  Note also that Fry cites young adults in California (i.e. “valley girls”) as well as the offending Australians in his assessment of uptalk’s origins and attributes its spread to popular American and Australian television shows which appeal to those in their teens and twenties (Buffy, Neighbours, etc.).  Uptalk not only psycholinguistically irritates older and more literary/professional folk, it also has become in its own way emblematic of what the previous generation sees as superficial pop culture values in their children.  Wells’ book has very specific advice to those wishing to improve the fluency of their English with adjustments in tone and prosody:

What should the learner of EFL [English as Foreign Language] do about uptalk?

  • If you were born before about 1980, do not use uptalk.
  • If you were born later, you can imitate its use by native speakers but do not overdo it.  Uptalk is never essential.  Bear in mind that using uptalk may annoy older people listening to you. (38)

Uptalk is apparently the bratty youngest child who is only invited to weddings because the rest of his family has to be there and who does not understand the meaning of being seen but not heard.

But is uptalk truly limited to those born after 1980?  If there were adult public speakers who used the “pardon-question rise” instead of a default falling tone in making assertive statements, would these adults automatically become linguistic pariahs?  Apparently not – one such person was elected to the highest political office in America.  The Language Log, a collective blog edited by University of Pennsylvania phonetician Mark Liberman, reported in December of 2005 that then-President George W. Bush’s speeches on Iraq had been changing recently in an interesting way: the President was using more and more uptalk.  Here’s a sound clip of the beginning of his Dec 12, 2005 speech, which “leads with 18 seconds of phrases with final rises”:

http://ldc.upenn.edu/myl/llog/BushPhillyX1.wav

Why in the world would the most politically powerful man on Earth have to end his statements with a tonal pattern that sounds, at first glance, to indicate little more than insecurity?  Liberman provides an intriguing discussion with academic references in another post which questions the linguistic establishment’s dismissive conclusions on the significance of uptalk, appropriately titled “This is, like, such total crap?

At any rate, it seems the only solid conclusions about uptalk are that it is a recent phenomenon, it is often perceived as having originated from certain linguistically marginal areas of the English-speaking world, and that it’s here to stay.  The Bush example shows, however, that as with many other linguistic phenomena, the connotations of uptalk may be mostly contextual.  If the President is giving a somber speech about a war, the prosodic patterns he uses may – upon analysis – be phonetically identical to those a valley girl talking on the phone with her friends, but would anyone aside from a phonetician say they are the same phenomenon?

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