Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The Low Down on Uptalk

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.

28 Responses to “The Low Down on Uptalk”

  1. Mary Martin Says:

    In addition to the rising tone, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of women whose voices have a clenched, cricket-like quality. Is this a characteristic of Valley Speak?

  2. rbeard Says:

    I’m not exactly sure of what you are referring to. There is an unusual crispness to not only Valley Speak but some eastern dialects, too. Could you be a bit more specific? Can you think of a word or two that exemplifies the trait you are thinking of?

  3. Mark Says:

    I was just listening to a cellphone product review on the CNET website, and the speaker, a guy in his early 30’s, ended every statement about the phones features with “up-talk”. I find this speech habit to be extremely annoying. In general i thought it was indicative of younger speakers, but they seem to be getting older and older – i guess i am too for that matter. I guess that once everyone my age is dead, everyone will be doing it and nobody will be annoyed, know what I’m saying?

  4. Nancy Burkhalter Says:

    I find uptalk so annoying that I will turn off any TV or radio show that uses it and will listen to an uptalker only under extreme circumstnces, for instance, if it’s someone explaining an item in my insurance policy wom I MUST listen to. But my question is this: who self-selects to use uptalk? There are those who don’t – even some young kids. On the other hand, there are many older folks who do. (Witness the uptick in uptalk by President Bush in his speeches.) So, what does it tell us about those people who use it? And why do I find it so annoying? The ones who use it obviously don’t find it a problem.

  5. Nancy Burkhalter Says:

    I find uptalk so annoying that I will turn off any TV or radio show that uses it and will listen to an uptalker only under extreme circumstnces, for instance, if it’s someone explaining an item in my insurance policy wom I MUST listen to. But my question is this: who self-selects to use uptalk? There are those who don’t – even some young kids. On the other hand, there are many older folks who do. (Witness the uptick in uptalk by President Bush in his speeches.) So, what does it tell us about those people who use it? And why do I find it so annoying? The ones who use it obviously don’t find it a problem. And is there any way to get someone to STOP doing it?

  6. Michael McKean Says:

    What about the “growl”, dropping the ends of sentences into the semi-voiced lower register? This seems to be replacing uptalk as a way of keeping us listening…and it’s an epidemic. Check out any ingenue on Letterman or Leno, chatting about her latest project. Every sentence will end in the growl.

  7. Phil Amend Says:

    So interesting to finally find a blog dealing with this English linguistic epidemic that has infected the speech of Americans over the last 2 decades. The hypothesis that Uptalk has Southern Scotch-Irish origins does seem likely and I think most of us have heard a very authentic version of it with speakers from the South. The Scotch-Irish had a profound impact on the speech patterns of the South and Appalachian region as illustrated so nicely by Robert MacNeil in his ‘The Story of English’ series from the mid-80s.

    However, while Uptalk may have originated in the South, I agree with the view that the current epidemic began in California, specifically, it would seem, among teenage girls in the San Fernando Valley. It was apparently in these late-70s/early-80s shopping mall language “incubators” that various pre-existing California-based speech patterns such as male-dominated ‘surfer talk’ (together with, perhaps, transplanted Southern dialects) morphed into a number of powerful valley speak ‘viruses’ that continue to ravage American speech today, especially among young women. These linguistic viruses would be:

    – Uptalk (as described in the above blog).

    – Classic Valley/Surfer Speak (e.g. the unique rounded-gutteral phonation of phrases/words such as “like toaatally growwtty to the max!”, “tuubular”, “gnarly”, “radical”, “dude”, “dweeb”) – the importance here not being the actual phrases/words themselves but the infectious intonation/phonetics style used to vocalize them.

    – The “Trailing Clenched Growl” (described in Responses 1 & 6 above) – This linguistic virus is absolutely epidemic among young women in America today. The speakers trail off the end of sentences with a clenched larynx causing the last syllables to come out as a gravelly growl. It appears to me such an awkward and debilitating way of speaking that I often wonder if afflicted speakers are actually self-aware of their growls. This, by the way, is a fascinating study in and of itself: whether speakers of various dialects/accents/languages are actually self-aware of the unusual characteristics of their speech/language.

    It is refreshing when one hears a young woman speak a clear, straight-forward English free of the above influences. Interesting to speculate as to what may have provided immunity. I’ve noticed that regional accents can sometimes provide protection. For example, young women from New England often seem to have been spared from valley speak.

    There are, of course, a number of other speech patterns and vogueisms that seem to have taken hold in American speech over the past decade or so. Here are a couple I have noticed:

    – The “About Myself” intonation – Here the speaker lists various things about himself/herself with a downward intonation on the last word (e.g. “I’m 34 years of AGE….I’m a working MOTHER….I have 4 CHILDREN…”). This seems to me to be a relatively recent pattern and may very well also have its origins in the South.

    – “To Speak To (Something)” – I may be wrong about this but it seems to me that 20-25 years ago, we used to say that someone would be uniquely qualified to speak ABOUT such and such issue or subject as opposed to speaking TO IT. (e.g. “I think Bob can speak to the issue of re-financing our debt” or “That performance speaks to the current ambivalence of our society to deal with …”, etc.) The usage of “to speak to” is now rampant in both media and corporate communications and, for me, it always smacks of a certain affected speech and pretentiousness; a transparent attempt to sound sophisticated, very corporate and/or savvy. I’d very much be interested in other reader’s views on “to speak to” and whether it is, in fact, viewed by linguists as a vogueism.

  8. Gabrielle Says:

    You need to provide an audio link so that readers can really comprehend what you are trying to describe.

  9. Walter Says:

    I was also going to ask for some audio so I could understand what was meant by the “growl”, but now that I am listening for it, it is obvious with essentially every woman (and a few guys) speaking or presenting inside my company this week. Sit there for a second and do kind of a quiet exhale with a bit of a staccato. Surely you have heard annoying analysts on TV or on the radio do this gravelly and grating “umm” while they think. Now somehow blend that sound into the last few words of all of your sentences. Let me tell you, it takes a bit of practice and I am fascinated at just how well some folks do it.
    Hey, be forewarned, understanding this phenomenon comes under the category of “be careful what you wish for”. Boy do I wish I could go back to not really noticing this habit, it is so annoying! 🙂

  10. Frank J. Tomasik Says:

    I’ve noticed an annoying trend among some (mostly younger) women.
    It is the habit of using a short “a” sound when a short “e” sound is normal. An example is the word “head”. Some women pronounce it as “had”. I’ve heard some media women using this form of pronunciation on TV and it is very annoying The words bed, led, said, etc. are pronounced in this manner. I don’t know if this is a variation on Valspeak or just a habit started in college. I don’t think some women realize they are using this distorted pronunciation. Anyone else notice this aberation? Please tell me I’m not alone in my observation.

  11. Frank Says:

    Addendum to my comment #10: If you want to hear all of the above language aberations (uptalk, growling, short “a” words) see Ann Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married”. She uses them all with obvious panache. She must have a master’s in Valspeak…

  12. Sherry Gillis Says:

    I, too, am irritated by the speaking habit I call “The Growl.” It has infected women and girls in their teens, 20s and 30s – and in the Pacific Northwest, few seem to speak with a normal, smooth voice. I think it started with Britney Spears, who used a growling sound in her videos to seem sexy. Take particular note of the ends of sentences.

  13. Phil Amend Says:

    Further to Frank’s Response 11 above, there is an authentic example of the “Trailing Clenched Growl” in the film ‘Brüno’. In one very funny scene, Brüno attempts to boost his fame by taking on a new, unclaimed world charity. The 2 young female image consultants with him in the scene are classic “growlers”.

  14. SH Says:

    Glad to know there is a term for that “growl-speak” … Trailing Clenched Growl! It’s been bugging me for a long time. I heard the girls on SNL using it in a bit once, so I guess it is pervasive enough to parody.

    Now- what about shtreet for street and other words with “st” sound. I hear news people saying it all the time on tv.

  15. Tony C Says:

    These speech patterns have both fascinated and annoyed me for years.
    It is impossible for me to understand the slurred, drawling sounds coming from the speaker in a drive-thru restaurant. I have to go inside to watch their lips move. The problem is: They don’t move much. It’s easier to just let the words fall out than enunciate. Many teenage females still sound like they did at six years old.
    What’s with the slurring all the words together?
    sirrrb’thaaa meant “sorry about that” as she dumps my fries in my lap. Many young men also have this habit. A male flight attendant’s rushed,garbled announcement on a recent flight left the passengers baffled, arms out, palms up, in a universal “what the hell was that?” gesture.
    The “a” for “e” sound is my pet peeve. My tan,sorry, ten-year-old
    Granddaughter tells me of her “Bast Frand Janiffer” I think it’s to do with the way they hold their mouth open at that age and try to smile and giggle at the same time. It’s slightly more work to make the “e’ sound with your mouth frozen in a silly grin.
    “WhatAVER !!” replied a teenage girl when I asked about this habit that seems to affect girls most and, unhappily stays with
    some into much later years.
    I too,believe the trailing clenched growl, or drawl, is a Britney thing. Together with the trend for harder,harsher,lower-pitched speech among young females, the group effect is that of ducks with a sore throat. As long as their frands understand…..
    I think the “To speak to” thing is a catchphrase such as: 24-7, bottom line, Don’t go there, what’s going down? (before Miami Vice,the entire world said “what’s going on?”) “gunman” has suddenly become “shooter” Thank the cop shows for that one.
    Trust me….that’s a gem. No thanks,pal.
    A local talk show host is addicted to “to speak to”,inviting all callers and guests many times daily to speak to various issues on his program.
    The word Mother has apparently been eliminated. When asked by a TV interviewer what you do, you must now say proudly “I’m a MOM”

    Last: The Granddad and Mom of all….LIKE and OH MY GOD!

    Please deposit $10.00 in the barrel marked badspeak tax at the food court every time you use one of these.

  16. Sammy G. Says:

    Hissing every “s”. “Sssso, how’sss it going, Sssssally?” Tolerable for 1 minute, torture after 5. Suburban young white women are the primary offenders in my experience, but it’s spreading among young women generally. The origin? Who knows?

  17. Tony C Says:

    My problem is that I still think guys are guys and not girls.
    This of course is a mistake that causes me constant aggravation.
    When will I learn that we have all been “guys”? for many years.
    Just ask the waitress:
    How you guys doin’ tonite? Can I grab you guys a beverage? (items in a restaurant or bar must be grabbed, not simply got or brought) How’s everything tasting for you guys?
    I’ll grab the bill for you guys….There you guys go!!
    And that was a table full of women.
    The next abberation, formerly the domain of juvenile girls and female country singers,is spreading like, well, all the other gems of speech. Instead of saying “the apple. the end.the inside. the other, this has now become: th-apple, th-end etc. removing the e sound and creating a pause between the words where previously the words flowed easily together. Unlike most other speech habits, this one actually seems like more work.

    Speaking of “how you guys doin'” it is now universally accepted that there are no more g’s required on the end of a word. This is widespread throughout the media and past the point of repair.
    Sportscasters, weather people, traffic and news reporters are all guilty. Possibly we will continue to shorten and slur words to the point where we communicate in a series of grunts like cave….wait a minute, isn’t this how we started?

    We eagerly await the Queen’s Christmas message:

    I hope you guys all had a great year?
    I’ve been really strassed what with Charles and some of th-other family members? Like this job is 24-7? It’s hard being a mom to a bunch like that?
    Oh my God I’ve had enough of this, I feel like grabbin my crown and goin on vacation. Bye, Guys

  18. Linda Says:

    Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you Tony C. I’ve observed the disappearance of Mother too. Everybody’s a Mom. What’s wrong with being a Mother? Does Mom not bear the burden of the Freudian associations with the word Mother? Is Mom supposed to be friendlier? Happier? More involved? And “to speak to” the topic of the quacking sound adopted by virtually every woman under 50, I ask “Is sounding like a six year old supposed to be sexy?” It is so aggravating to listen to. And while we’re tossing out observations about other language trends, have you noticed that there is no more “in the future”? It’s always “going forward.” This is especially true in newscasts.

  19. Robert Beard Says:

    I was about to do a blog entry on “guy” when I noticed that Tony had already brought it up. I was doing my rounds in the fieldhouse yesterday as the women’s tennis team was gathering. The coach was saying things like, “Hi, guys” and “Now, I want you guys to . . . .” I think this is because “gals” is slang but, for some strange reason, “guys” is not.

    We don’t call mature women (as we would like to presume college-aged females are) “girls” until they reach retirement age (!?) That pretty much leaves “gals” as a feminine correlate to “guys”. If “gal” is too slangy it becomes potentially offensive, leaving us with what–guys?

  20. Tony C. Says:

    For a great example of the “quacking 6-year old” syndrome, try “the Bachelor”. Don’t look, just listen. How old are these ninnies? 6? 8… maybe. If you can decipher every sentence before it growls away,congratulations. I would keep all the damn roses and send the girls (guys?) back to school.
    There is a local politician whose favorite spin is “Clearly we are moving forward to work together to stay on the same page” He has been getting away with this meaningless twaddle for many years, mainly when moving quickly through a crowd
    The newest catchphrase is “on the ground” How are things there on the ground? says one reporter to another. Where are the rest of us?…. in the trees??

    Remember “world-wide”? Don’t say it anymore. Now it’s “global”

    Guys and Gals…Boys and Girls…Guys and Dolls…Ladies and Gents
    What are we to do?
    A young female will admit to enjoying a “girly movie” or a “girly drink, but don’t call her a girl. Or a lady. They used to hate “chick”
    I think some secretly like it,however the tennis coach would surely forfeit his racquet and balls had he said “now I want you chicks to….”

  21. Smbika Says:

    Thanks everyone. You all nailed it beautifully. MY pet peeve is the “growl” but a close second is the up-talk with the “a” instead of “e” a credible 3rd place winner.

    I find myself turning off radio programs even when I am engrossed in the topic because of the grating voice of one or more participants…sadly, all but a few of them women…or perhaps i should be grateful that more men don’t do this. The thing about the growl, though, is that men have a naturally deep voice and women seem to be attempting to imitate it…

  22. C. Weber Says:

    This is such an excellent article and the posts are also informative.
    The “uptick” voice (my husband is a comparative philologist and prefers this synonym for the every-sentence-is-a-query) according to my husband is indeed a deep South trademark. It is the natural twang inherent in the regions south and east of the Appalachians. For everyone else, it is no more than the terrible phenomenon of “copy-cat reflex”. (My husband has all sorts of little terms.)

    What is certainly worse than the uptick and the “creak” (my husband calls the creak “the 2-packs-a-day”) is the screaming liberal speaking at 10,000 decibels. (See, or rather, hear, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, MSNBC.)

    It is also to be noted that British, Australian and New Zealand dialects have odd inflections when asking a question, a Chinese-style uptick right before letting the hammer drop on the last word. (“Are you SLEEP-ingggggggg?”) This sort of “chirp” is not catching on in America, but it may certainly be related to the upswing.

    (Husband again) notes that people are badly mistreating the word “would”. “I would say that…”, “It would seem…”, “We would agree…” except that requires an exception. “I would say ‘crap’, only it is against my religion.’ Otherwise, one should express it: “I say ‘CRAP’!!”Nice work, writers, love the page.

  23. Dudu Stinks Says:

    I love the thread.

    I must add the “I feel like” phenom. Example “I feel like she doesn’t, like, want to talk to you.” what does him not wanting to talk to you actually feel like? Is it a warm sensation? Happy? Sad? The worst is ending a sentence in “I feel like”– ” this restaurant was much better today, I feel like”

    While I am at it, what is the deal with an “or” closer? Meaning, a person who asks a question with an implied choice but you never are given the choice. example “Are you planning on reading that memo or…..?” I often feel bullied when someone uses that one. There is no real choice, you are going to read that memo!


  24. skip Says:

    I am a trained speaker, a major in speech, graduated from leading rhetorical colleges. I hear the following EVERYWHERE. One is obvious “up talk”. Two is valspeak. Three would be sufer speech. Four is the aforementioned vowel subsitution. Six is the vocalized pauses: “um”, “like”, you know, know what I mean. Seven is the throaty growl I call gravel throat which is happening throuhout the entire sentence not just the ends anymore. And eight is sweeping the, literally, the world. It is the sibilant “s” or the overly prounouced words with c, s, t, th. There are diagnosed people with s problems that need speech therapy. But the “s” problem is the people who adopt the s to sound more sophisticated. It started in England and it is irritating when it is an affect not a serious speech problem. I here the combinations more and more. At meetings, audio books, TV announcers, and now, actors. Stayed tuned for my theroies but this type of sppech sounds like 6 year olds. And I can’t take the person seriously. I will find another bank teller, turn off the tv channel, return the CD!!!!!!!!!

  25. Soviet Canuckistan Says:

    I think the HRT has been a consistent feature of Canadian English for a long, long time. We even have the classic Canadian “Eh?” at the end of phases to emphasize. It has been cited as proof of a certain Canadian desire not to offend, to search for agreement. American English, by contrast, seems mroe definitive.

    Regarding “speaking To”: I hear it all the time, especially at work, and I hate it. It makes no sense. I prefer to speak About things or speak Of certain things. I speak To my audience – if I am making a speech and don’t care what they think. Normally I speak With interlocutors.

    It seems to me that “to speak to” must be overused in error, but my reseach so far indicates that it is acceptable. I am having trouble accepting that. I would love some professors of English to speak Out against this trend.

  26. Kirk Gunn Says:

    Oh, what a godsend this blog is! I have been wondering if it’s only me that can hear the HRTs, the “growl-talking”, the pronunciation of the short “a” in place of the short “e” (e.g. the word “bed” prounced as “bad”), etc. Yet, there are very few places online that address anything close to these bastardized pronunications and “newspeak”, and those that do exist are by and for linguists that use a symbology which can only be learned by becoming a linguist!
    BUT: Here is the *latest* thing/craze that is sweeping North America, primarily used by news broadcasters (both male and female): it is the “lip smack” that is produced between news items. It is never used in the middle of a news piece while the topic remains the same, but seems to be used as a signal to get the viewer to pay attention to a new topic. The range of “lip-smacking” behavior ranges from the slight to the downright off-putting; if it were performed at the dinner table, the smacker’s table manners would be considered to be non-existent!
    The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television network is one of the prime early offenders, particularly with the endorsement of the senior newsreader, Peter Mansbridge (whose normal Canadian accent is unusually punctuated with a “typical” mid-continent American pronunciation of words like “about” and “now” with no rationale for how that affectation came to be).
    However, in the intervening couple of years since Mansbridge was in the vanguard of the “lip-smacking-for-emphasis” vanity, television announcers all over Canada and the United States have jumped on this most annoying bandwagon.
    This drives me nuts! And to prove it, I’ll confess that I wrote the CBC and CTV news departments to complain, with no answer. I then wrote to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Ombudsman”, outlining how offensive hearing someone’s act of semi-mastication (lip-smacking). He at least replied, but in a tone that was condescendingly dismissive.
    Has anyone else noticed this latest assault on our aural sensibilities?
    (I have mentioned to my long-suffering wife that, if I were ever to rule the world, people who knowingly mispronounce a word for some sort of stylistic effect would shortly find themselves on a Language Gibbet that I would commission in every city.)

  27. declan1 Says:

    A little late for this topic,but this crap drives me berserk. I try to avoid conversing with anyone under the age of 30 due to the fact that I may do or say something about this stupid voice elevation.There is nothing cute about this annoying crap,I sometimes speak to younger foreigners and noticed that they try extra hard to speak correctly.This valley girl crap has to be addressed and eliminated.

  28. Karl Marx Says:

    There must be some reason why most of the annoying “uptalk” and “fryvoice” is done mostly by women; my theory is that women, being the sex that is generally more “unsure” of themselves, seemingly, create speech patterns to make themselves appear more sophisticated and “with it”. All they really show is how well they can copy speech patterns of others also in error. I’m beginning to wonder if a national authority for educating people in the correct way to speak ought to be established–I’m already convinced that English grammar classes ought to be standardized in correctness and strictly followed, no more laxity in teaching English grammar! I have also noticed the disappearance of Mother for “mom” as well as Father for “dad”. Time does not “go forward” so there is nothing wrong with saying “from now on” or even “henceforth”. One more annoying thing is the use of “on the planet” instead of “on earth”. Everything is “epic” or “iconic” or “legendary” and so few know the real definition of what constitutes something classic (that which has stood the test of time). And if I hear of one more mediocrity leaving some sort of “legacy” after he or she dies I will enter a Trappist monastery. Obituaries lately are replete with idiocies such as “passed away” among the many “euphemisms” for “die” and how does one “precede someone ‘in death'”. I thought it was always “so and so was predeceased by so and so” or at least something like, “her death was preceded by that of her husband”.

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