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.
The 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?’
‘So the rooms could be bigger than this?’
‘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’.