Uptalk in Surrey: The Twinning Hypothesis

Uptalk, also called upspeak, rising intonation, and (misleadingly) high-rising terminal, is where someone ends a statement as though it were a question? These two are for illustration? Uptalk is stereotypically associated with Australians, ‘Valley Girls’, and young women generally.

It’s also widely hated. Get people talking about their language peeves, and sooner or later uptalk will crop up. It has been described as an ‘annoying tic’ (The Smithsonian), ‘worse than vocal fry’ (Time), and as a ‘nasty habit’ in Psychology Today, which also worries that ‘statements and opinions will become extinct’. This is feverish doom-mongering.

Even Stephen Fry, normally a tolerant sort, linguistically, gave out about uptalk on UK comedy show Room 101, complaining invidiously that it had ‘invaded Britain entirely’. The host, Paul Merton, said it could be a politeness strategy, though he didn’t call it that, but Fry was having none of it (and went on to censure quotative like, which Merton also defended). Most of the audience found uptalk ‘deeply irritating’:

 

Contrary to popular belief, uptalk is not restricted to young women and Australians. Men around the world use it too, often for dialectal reasons or to assert dominance. (George Bush, for example, was partial to it.) Context alters [PDF] how it’s used and perceived: researchers have found that uptalk ‘can suggest a range of nuanced meanings in different geographical areas and conversational contexts’.

But it is a convenient scapegoat for policing women’s voices, especially in cultures that pathologize feminine traits. One theory holds that uptalk is essentially a protective device. Yana Skorobogatov explains:

Women train themselves – both voluntarily and involuntarily – to use rising intonation in certain contexts to protect themselves from accusations of ‘bossiness’ and ‘bitchiness’. By blunting a declarative sentence’s intended force, upspeak allows women to meet what [Robin] Lakoff argues are two conflicting demands: to provide information with confidence, but do so in a non-imposing, dependent, non-bossy, ‘lady-like’ way.

Later research has revised this perception. At Language Log, Mark Liberman acknowledges that uptalk can be used ‘in asking questions, in signaling that a list isn’t finished, and – yes – in expressing uncertainty’. But he takes issue with the common belief that it implies diffidence on the part of the speaker:

A much more plausible idea about final rises was proposed in McLemore (1991), where it was suggested that a metaphor of connection unifies such uses as marking non-final list items, evoking shared knowledge, and inviting a response. Whatever the correct description is, it’s probably not a matter of position on scales of relative confidence and dominance. If final rises are sometimes used to signal self-doubt, or more often used for (perhaps benevolent) communicative control, it’s for the same reasons that nearly any linguistic tool can be used for nearly any interactional purpose.

He says the key thing is that

‘uptalk’ is not signaling a question, in the literal sense of a request for information about the truth of the proposition being presented; nor does it (usually) mean that someone with low self-confidence is making a plea for reassurance. Rather, the studies suggest that it’s usually someone who feels in control of the interaction and is inviting a response, as evidence that the interlocutor is going along.

Once a speech pattern gains a foothold in a group or community, it can spread by imitation and accommodation. We pick up modes of expression (among other behavioural features) from people we often interact with. This can help us identify with one another, bond socially, gain approval, enhance communication, and so on.

Harper Perennial paperback book cover of Hilary Mantel's novel Beyond Black, featuring a colour illustration of playing-cards queen vacuuming the floorThe terms uptalk and upspeak were coined in the early 1990s and were added to the OED in 2016, joining coverage in several other dictionaries. But the phenomenon itself is much older than that, though no one knows where and when it originated.

I read a novel suggestion recently, in a novel, of how it emerged in a part of the world not renowned for uptalk. Hilary Mantel’s marvellous paranormal comedy Beyond Black* has a scene where one of the two main characters is house-hunting in Surrey and meets a real estate agent named Suzi who relies heavily on uptalk:

‘Here you are then. The Beatty?’

Colette was puzzled by the woman, who turned most of her statements into questions. It must be what they do in Surrey, she decided; they must have had it twinned with Australia.

She opened the brochure for the Beatty and took it to the light.

‘Are these the actual room sizes, Suzi?’

‘Oh no. It’s for information purposes only?’

‘So it’s information, but it’s wrong?’

‘It’s guidelines?’

‘So the rooms could be bigger than this?’

‘Probably not.’

‘But they could be smaller?’

‘Some contraction could occur.’

‘We aren’t midgets, you know? What are the four-beds like? We could merge the rooms, or something.’

‘At this stage, subject to building regulations, some redesign is possible?’ Suzi said. ‘Extra costs may be incurred?’

‘You’d charge for walls you didn’t put up?’

Given how widely and intensely loathed uptalk is, this reaction to Suzi’s is admirably dispassionate. Instead of the annoyance you might expect from a non-linguist’s treatment of the trait, the book’s protagonist is merely puzzled at hearing it in Surrey, and curious enough about it to propose a geographical cause.

Suzi’s way of saying the rooms may be smaller than depicted is also noteworthy: ‘Some contraction could occur.’ Passive-voice haters may be tempted to condemn this as an egregious example, but of course it’s not passive at all; it’s just a rather abstract and weaselly way of answering the question, altogether in keeping with the fantasy land of real estate lingo.

For more extensive and informed discussion of uptalk – its functions, distribution, and so on – see the links at the end of this Language Log post.

* In 2015 I featured Beyond Black in a book spine poem, ‘After the fire’.

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28 Responses to Uptalk in Surrey: The Twinning Hypothesis

  1. I have been fighting a losing battle against this speech pattern for several years. My “Is that a question or a statement?” is often met with blank looks until I explain that HOW they say something can be just as important as WHAT they say.

    “Is that a question or a statement?”

    “A statement?”

    “Then why do you put that inflection at the end as if it’s a question?”

    “I don’t?”

    “Let’s try this again–Are you asking me, or telling me?”

    “Telling you?”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Genuine ambiguity from rising intonation is rare, in my experience. I’m not a big fan of uptalk, but – those rare cases aside – I think I’d have to go out of my way to misinterpret it as an actual question.

  2. galtz says:

    I understand?

  3. Jan Privateperson says:

    I don’t agree that “uptalk” is a verbal protective device. To me, the intonation doesn’t indicate lack of confidence or assertiveness. Quite the opposite: It seems to be a demand for agreement from the listener (an “uh huh”, nod, or similar signal) at every rising intonation. Maddening!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Generally speaking it doesn’t indicate lack of confidence. But it’s not a clear-cut issue: people use it in different ways for different reasons in different contexts.

  4. azzurosky says:

    I first heard uptalk being used by a young Sydney uni student in about 1975. I remember being both puzzled and intrigued by this phenomenon of a series of statements coming out as questions. As time went by this usage became more and more prominent, especially amongst young people. I’ve also heard a strong uptalk tendency from some Italian speakers, but I don’t know whether it’s at all common in Italy.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It does seem to have become more prominent. How much of that is due to a rise in use, as opposed to just greater visibility via internet and entertainment media, I don’t know.

  5. Chips Mackinolty says:

    The Chief Minster of the Northern Territory of Australia, Michael Gunner uses upspeak very often. http://www.abc.net.au/radio/darwin/programs/afternoons/my-territory-childhood-michael-gunner/8679816

  6. Rick says:

    It’s strange to me how no one ever seems to be bothered by the uptalk in Northern Irish or other regional British accents. I wonder why that is. The Northern Irish accent has even been voted the sexiest accent in the UK in the past.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s odd, isn’t it. I wonder if people who hate uptalk but not Northern Irish accents find the latter’s intonation functionally or phonetically different, or what. In the last of those attractive-accents polls I paid attention to, Northern Irish scored moderately well but Southern Irish topped the lot.

      • Rick says:

        Yeah the poll I’m thinking of was from a few years ago. Northern Irish intonation seems phonetically different from uptalk to me too. But see this Language Log post. There Liberman says, “But I do know that it’s going to be hard to distinguish Urban North British statement rises from North American uptalk, overall, just on the basis of pitch contours. And in particular, Bob’s idea (that we can do it purely on the basis of whether post-nuclear syllables ‘just keep on rising’) is not going to work.”

  7. Sawney says:

    It may be significant that the Room 101 clip is from 2001 – presumably well before “the old pedantic” Fry had “outgrown that silly approach to language”.*

    * from a 2008 blog post: http://www.stephenfry.com/2008/11/dont-mind-your-language…/

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it probably is – though I don’t know if Fry’s feelings about uptalk specifically have changed. Thanks for reminding me of this post of his.

  8. klyse3 says:

    Thanks for acknowledging that uptalk is a more complicated issue than the mockery makes it seem. I am a young woman and I consider myself a relatively forceful communicator, but I’ve been told that I do use uptalk/upspeak. For me, it generally serves two purposes. One, I do sometimes use it to soften statements and not appear bitchy. And two, I think I often use it as an indicator that I’m thinking. When I’m still thinking about an idea and I’m talking in a stream-of-consciousness style, uptalk is the cue I use to string all my sentences together.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for this contribution. It’s helpful to hear someone who does use uptalk explain why, and it’s instructive to see that motivations vary not only from person to person but also for one person in different situations.

    • Klyse, your comment aligns with a suspicion of mine – that uptalk can be a tactic to avoid interruption and verbal crushing by a more aggressive interlocutor.

      On a separate note, also important to distinguish between uptalk as a conscious strategy as opposed to a habitual and unconscious verbal tic.

      • azzurosky says:

        Yes, the rising terminal at the end of a sentence can indicate that there’s more to follow – and a quick breath can be taken before going on. I recall a highly opinionated acquaintance who used to avoid interruption by only breathing in the middle of a sentence before continuing.

  9. petey says:

    it’s one of the elements i detect in ulster dialect.

  10. astraya says:

    ‘stereotypically associated with Australians’

    I have never noticed it, but then I spend most of my time with either second language learners or generally well-spoken older people (at church and choir practices).

    • Stan Carey says:

      This clip of comedian Adam Hills pokes fun at AusE uptalk, though unfortunately it also perpetuates myths about the feature (“we’re all too insecure to actually make a statement?”):

      • I have an untested theory that almost all popular forms of art leverage cliches and commonplaces. This could be an element of their definition. The richness of this mother lode of associations can be appreciated by those of us who enjoy the Blues, for example.

  11. queasypaddy says:

    I spent years teaching, mostly 10 and 11 year olds, and it was amazing to hear uptalk gradually spreading over the years. It never achieved epidemic proportions, but it certainly took hold in some quarters.

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