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Archive for the 'Accents & Dialects' Category

The Low Down on Uptalk

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Lynda Pongracz asked today, “Have you ever commented on the style of speech I’ve heard described as ‘up talk’? There seems to be a tendency (mostly in American speech) to end every sentence with the voice going up as it does when asking a question. It used to be that declarative sentences ended with the voice steady or even going down. This kind of up talk seems to be popular in the current generation, and I’ve heard it used both informally in conversation as well as formally in speeches and even in TV news. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this. When and how did this trend begin? Is it typical of certain parts of the US? Do other language groups have up talk?

“Uptalk” is sweeping the English-speaking world, it would seem. Reports of it in Australia, New Zealand, England, and Canada are pouring in. Unfortunately, because it is different from radio-TV intonation, it frightens many people.

Linguists didn’t like the journalese term “uptalk”, so they created their own monstrosity (which is, admittedly a bit more descriptive): High Rising Tone or simply HRT. It is an intonation pattern in which the pitch of the voice rises to the level of a question across the predicate of a statement, e.g. “I heard Freddy is working real hard these days? at two jobs now? one at night and the other during the day?”

The intonation is not that of a question, however, because it does not simply rise at the end of the sentence but before the end and is sustained. It sounds very much like the intonation of “you know what I’m sayin?” superimposed on a statement.

Imagine the intonation of that phrase added to that of “I heard Freddy is working real hard these days, know what I’m saying?” Now, drop the phrase and retract the intonation over the phrase itself. The interesting aspect of this analysis is that the meaning of this information is very similar to the meaning of the phrase. It is not question intonation nor does it mark questions; it serves to accentuate whatever is being said and checks to see if the listener is following.

Raising the intonation before the end of a statement is not unusual. Another language I speak, Russian, regularly indicates dependent clauses by the same raised intonation pattern that they use for questions. So it is not an unusual linguistic phenomenon; it is just unusual for those of us accustomed to radio-TV intonation.

A major question has been, where did uptalk originate? According to a 1995 piece in the Houston Chronicle, “It began as a feature of valley speak, the adolescent argot native to the San Fernando Valley and immortalised by the valley girl. But now uptalk has taken on a life of its own.” Others have traced it to Australia and New Zealand. Neither of these presumptions are true.

In fact, it was alive and healthy in the South in the 1950s because most of my cousins used it in rural North Carolina and many girls in the city high school did, too. It was only used when they were talking relatively urgently about something and, as many others have noted, only by girls.

My guess would be that it is a late development of an Irish accentuation pattern which also tends to go up at unusual points in a phrase. Irish and Scottish accents changed more slowly in the South than in the North since, as I mentioned recently on a talk show, the southern accents were not battered by the foreign accents of immigrants, who arrived mostly in the North. However, this is just a working hypothesis for which I have no historical evidence.

However, next week I will be back in the South and will certainly keep my ears open for further evidence of uptalk down there. I think that all evidence points to uptalk being a second major contribution to English made by the South, yall being the first.

The best piece I could find on the Web is Mark Lieberman’s survey in his Language Log. I will look for some more.

On the Proper Use of ‘Y’all’

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

Brett Master recently complained about the use of y’all in the Rebel-Yankee Test:

Yall do come!“It is the proper address a single individual . . .when . . . the specific comments are applicable to more than just the individual him-/her-self. e.g., Bill speaking to John alone about his up coming family trip: ‘Y’all need to get visit the Grand Canyon, too, if you vist Hoover Dam’.”

I whole-heartedly agree with Brett. One of the problems Northerners have is understanding how y’all fits in Southern culture. You may, of course, use y’all when talking to one person, but you are always referring to that person and his/her family. The issue is not how many people you are addressing but what the y’all refers to.

Only one thing makes me madder than to hear a Yankee on TV or in the movies faking a Southern accent and saying, “Y’all come” to one person and referring only to that person. The one thing that makes me madder than that is to hear a Northerner say that Southerners misuse the term, implying we¬†don’t know the difference between singular and plural.

In my 20 years living in the South and all those years since visiting it several times a year, I have never heard a Southerner misuse this new pronoun which is now spreading rapidly across the US. It is, in fact, a perfect example of the intersect between language and culture.

For a natural born Southerner, it is simply impolite to invite one person to your home and not their entire family. So when a Southerner says, “Y’all come,” to one person, he or she is in fact REFERRING to that person’s entire family, hence only the plural is acceptable or grammatical.

The language and culture are braided together so tightly it is very difficult to study language outside the culture in which it is spoken. In fact, it is often very difficult to draw a line between the two.

The Disappearance of American Accents

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

Bruce Neben wrote yesterday:

“I live in Oregon (adult life), grew up in Calif (teens, 20’s and thirties), and (Cleveland) Ohio as a child. I hear none of these accents around the west, generally.”

“But the accents I do hear from people from around the country seem to be disappearing. People from New Orleans interviewed on TV or Radio seem to sound like me, as do many of those I hear from New York and elsewhere. I used to hear distinctive accents from people from Minnesota for example and those also seem to be going. It also seems to be a function of education. The more highly educated, the less the accent. Would you agree with these observations?”

Bruce is absolutely right. Regional accents are dying out, which is why we want to keep a record of them on the alphaDictionary site. In fact, we have been contacted by southern cultural heritage organizations who want to use our material in their activities. We are happy to do so.

However, little can be done to stem the tide of dialect (accent) mergence because there is no way to remove the factors causing that mergence. They include:

  1. Job mobility–people moving in both directions, south-north, north-south, following jobs;
  2. As Bruce points out, the educational system, whose job it is to teach pupils and students to speak the dominant dialect for social and economic reasons;
  3. Radio and television, which brings the dominant dialect to everyone and generally makes fun of the non-dominant ones.

As I mentioned in the NPR interview, the original dialects in this country were the results of the accents of the various immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life. They all landed on the east coast, which is why all the accents are currently in the east.

However, as they migrated to the west, all these accents merged into one, so there are no distinctive regional dialects west or north of southern Ohio (maybe southern Illinois and a bit in northern Minnesota). Accents extended as far west as West Texas in the south but not much beyond that. While there are peculiar pronunciations and slang vocabularies (Valley talk) out West, there are no distinctive dialects, like the Brooklyn accent, Texas accent or southern accent.

Now the regional speech differences are fading in the east, as well. Most of the differences in our Glossary of Quaint Southernisms are terms and pronunciations that I remember from my childhood, many of which already no longer exist.