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The Rise of Uptalking

Some people find uptalking intensely irritating, others don’t even notice it. It involves a slight rising inflection at the end of a sentence and it has spread rapidly throughout the English-speaking world. Linguists call it “high-rise terminals” (HRT).

It is mainly teenagers who are using HRT and it’s more likely to be used by females; it’s even appearing among pre-teens. Indeed, some adults seem to be catching the affliction from their children. It crops up everywhere as in “I live in Texas?” with the unspoken addition of “If that’s all right with you?”

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Where Does Uptalking Come from?

There are several theories about the origins of HRT.

The finger of suspicion is often pointed at southern California, in particular the San Fernando Valley. That’s where young women from affluent families started to develop “Valleyspeak” or “Valspeak” in the 1970s. But, the blame may well lie elsewhere and predates the linguistic manglings of the valley girls.

Some experts say it started on the other side of the Pacific, in New Zealand. From there, it spread to Australia. British people, exposed to it from Aussie and Kiwi immigrants, referred to it, with a rather superior sniff, as Australian Question Intonation (AQI).

Much of the received wisdom says it moved to Britain through television via two programs imported from Australia and very popular with U.K. teens - Neighbours and Home and Away. The kids in Britain started to adopt the AQI as part of their speech patterns.

Guardian columnist Mark Lawson says “I have no doubt at all that Australian soap is the culprit as the change in the speech of the English young became noticeable within a year or two of those shows topping our ratings.”

Older Origins

Some experts say uptalking pre-dates the 20th century.

Here’s Archibald Henry Sayce in 1880: “in Scotch the rising tone is often employed monotonously, not only in questions but also in answers and statements of facts.”

Okay Archie, we’ll overlook the fact that Scotch is a yummy drink and Scots are the people, but we get the point; a point that is made by others.

Mark Liberman is a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He speculates that uptalk goes all the way back to the 9th century. He stresses that this is a hypothesis because there are no recordings from that time, not even on eight-track.

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Critics of Uptalking

Comedian Stephen Fry says of uptalking that he “barely knows anyone under 20 who doesn’t use it” and adds that he “hates it.”

Psychology Professor Hank Davis (University of Guelph, Canada) calls it “a nasty habit. It is the very opposite of confidence or assertiveness. It’s gotten all out of control. These days even statements about which there should be no question or doubt are presented in this tentative, timid, and deferential manner.”

If you want to limit your career opportunities or chances of promotion then by all means adopt uptalking as a personal mannerism.

The Pearson publishing company surveyed 700 managers in the U.K. in 2013 and found that 71 percent agreed with the statement that uptalking is a “particularly annoying trait.” Even more revealing is the fact that 85 percent think the speech pattern is a “clear indicator of a person’s insecurity or emotional weakness.”

Very few of these people in hiring and firing positions said they would be happy to overlook uptalking and focus only on someone’s qualifications and aptitude.

Mary-Ellen Drummond is a communications consultant in Santa Fe, California. She identifies uptalking as a mostly female characteristic that gives the impression the speaker is seeking approval, “Uptalk robs them of credibility and authority. It is especially disempowering for women.”

Uptalking Named

James Gorman, a teacher at the New York University School of Journalism invented the word “uptalk.” In a 1993 article in The New York Times, Gorman wrote that he had no idea uptalking “could be as contagious as the common cold.”

He said he feared its spread into areas where you want to hear confidence from a speaker: “This is Captain McCormick? Your pilot? We’ll be flying to Denver? Our cruising altitude will be, like, 30,000 feet?”

How about the crucial part of the wedding ceremony? “I do?”

And, comedian Tina Fey adds “No one wants to go to a doctor who says: ‘I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk about your procedure?’ ”

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Gender Blaming

Linguistics expert Marybeth Seitz-Brown says she’s an uptalker and she’s damned if she’s going to change. She sees the criticism of uptalking is another way in which men try to dominate women. Ms. Seitz-Brown writes in Slate that “Think that uptalk makes women sound less authoritative? Maybe that’s because women are constantly robbed of agency and authority, and we view anything they do or say as less powerful.”

She views this as misogynistic and carries the notion within it that if women talked more like men their ideas would be more valuable.

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Bonus Factoids

Thomas Linneman is a sociologist at William & Mary University. He studied uptalking by analyzing contestants on 100 episodes of the game show Jeopardy! He found that women uptalked more than one and a half times more frequently than men and 76 percent of the time when their answers were wrong. Jessica Gross writes (Smithsonian) of the study, “Women’s uptalk doesn’t just indicate uncertainty, Linneman concludes; it’s also meant to compensate for success. Men, on the other hand, don’t want to seem uncertain around other men, but use uptalk when correcting women as ‘a weird form of chivalry,’ he says. ‘They’re in a public arena, they’re telling a woman [she’s] wrong, and they know they have to be careful about how they do it.’ ”

And now, enter what is called “vocal fry.” It’s a largely female affectation and consists of a low vibration, a sort of growl, usually at the end of a sentence. According to a study published in PLOS “In a large national sample of American adults we find that vocal fry is interpreted negatively. Relative to a normal speaking voice, young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hireable.”

Sources

  • “Introduction to the Science of Language, Volume 1, page 293.” Archibald Henry Sayce, C.K. Paul and Company, 1880.
  • “Word Up.” Matt Seaton, The Guardian, September 21, 2001.
  • “Want a Promotion? Don’t Speak Like an AUSSIE: Rising in Pitch at the End of Sentences Make you Sound ‘Insecure.’ ” Mail Online, January 13, 2014.
  • “The Unstoppable March of the Upward Inflection?” BBC Magazine, August 10, 2014.
  • “The Uptalk Epidemic.” Hank Davis, Psychology Today, October 6, 2010.
  • “What Can Jeopardy Tell Us About Uptalk?” Jessica Gross, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2014.
  • “Young Women Shouldn’t Have to Talk Like Men to be Taken Seriously.” Marybeth Seitz-Brown, Slate, December 16, 2014.
  • “Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market.” Rindy C. Anderson, et al, PLOS, May 2014.

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