“Uptalk” in English: Myth and Fact

Abby Kaplan

In this week’s post, Abby Kaplan, author of Women Talk More than Men…And Other Myths about Language Explained, investigates the phenomenon of “Uptalk” and the myths and facts surrounding it.

Young people these days, their intonation is really strange?  And all their sentences sound like questions? Which makes them sound like they’re not sure of anything?

Final rising pitch – popularly known as “uptalk” – is an intonation pattern that involves rising pitch at the end of a sentence. It has been documented throughout the English-speaking world: in the US, Australia, and New Zealand; it has also been documented among ELT students.

Uptalk is an occasional topic of comment in the popular media, and the general assessment is that it’s a Bad Thing. The story usually goes like this: Uptalk is a recent phenomenon, and it’s used mostly by young people – especially young women. It happens because speakers aren’t sure of themselves or can’t commit to what they’re saying. It’s annoying, and people should stop doing it. One columnist calls it a “nasty habit…. 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.”

This popular view, like many other folk beliefs about language, turns out to be false. Here’s what we know about uptalk:

Uptalk is not (that) new. Studies of uptalk in Australia and New Zealand go back to the early 1980s; other reports suggest that uptalk can be dated back to at least the 1960s. In the United States, Cynthia McLemore documented robust use of uptalk in a Texas sorority in the late 1980s.

Uptalk sometimes conveys uncertainty. Thomas Linneman showed that contestants on Jeopardy! were more likely to use uptalk when giving wrong answers – possibly because they tended to be less certain in those cases.

Uptalk conveys other things besides uncertainty. Speakers use uptalk for many other purposes, including:

o To hold the floor during a conversation. If you’re telling a story, you might use uptalk throughout in order to show that you’re not finished yet. You would use falling intonation at the end to signal that you’re done. “I called the cable company this morning? And I spent half an hour on hold? And then the guy I talked to couldn’t access my account? I got transferred to at least 5 different departments!” Jeanette McGregor and Sallyanne Palethorpe found that uptalk is far more likely in the middle of a conversational turn than at the end; David Britain found more uptalk during narratives than any other discourse type.

o To check that the listener understands. Uptalk can be an invitation for the listener to jump in if something is unclear. Gregory Guy and Julia Vonwiller quote the following example, where the speaker is describing a game that the listener hasn’t heard of. “It’s a sort of a game, right, you play with a tennis ball? And you’re supposed to – um, it’s four squares? Right? And you have a king? He’s in charge, he serves?”

Uptalk is used more often by women and young people, but not exclusively by these groups. Some studies have documented substantially more uptalk in the speech of women, although others have shown little or no difference. Every relevant study has found that men use uptalk at least sometimes. Listen to Jerry Seinfeld produce rising intonation: “This is a 1952 VW bug? In azure blue? It has a 4-cylinder, 25 HP engine?”

There’s some evidence that ELT students do a pretty good job of learning and using these different functions of uptalk. It’s good to be aware that some people may judge you negatively for using this intonation pattern; but for a very large number of English speakers, it’s an ordinary property of speech with several useful discourse functions.

You can uncover more language myths and facts in Abby’s book Women Talk More than Men…And Other Myths about Language Explained.

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