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.