May 15, 2005

This is, like, such total crap?

For Poetry Month, back in April, NPR featured Taylor Mali reading "Totally Like Whatever", which starts

In case you hadn't noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you're talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you're saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)'s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren't, like, questions? You know?

The idea that "uptalk" and tag questions are weak and self-doubting is a commonplace one, you know?

But it's not necessarily true? In fact, it may be completely false? Mali's performance reminds me of a radio ad I once heard, in which a hyper-aggressive car salesman deployed repeated final rises like a sonic finger poking you in the chest.

So when I hear him saying things like

Declarative sentences -- so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not -
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?

it's tempting to poke a literal finger in his direction while explaining, rising on every phrase, that

That is, like, such total crap?
You've got no idea whatever
about how people actually, like,
                 communicate, you know?

However, this would not only be impolite, it's unnecessary. If you want to hear what a strong, agressive use of tag questions and final rises sounds like, you could hardly do better than to listen to Taylor Mali subverting his own poem's message by reading it.

In a couple of earlier posts, I've mentioned the story of tag questions. Robin Lakoff wrote in her book Language and Woman's Place that tags are "associated with a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker." However, later studies of the actual distribution of tag questions in a spoken-language corpus found that they were mainly used by "powerful" speakers, those "institutionally responsible for the conduct of the talk" -- teachers, doctors, talk-show hosts and so on. I also mentioned Cynthia McLemore's observation that in a University of Texas sorority, final rises were used in chapter meetings to signal the presentation of significant new information by institutionally powerful individuals.

The latest issue of IJCL has a paper that provides another nail for the coffin of the idea that final rises are a sign of inadequate conviction. (Now if we can only get get it to lie down long enough to get the lid on...)

The paper is Winnie Cheng and Martin Warren, "// ↗ CAN i help you //: The use of rise and rise-fall tones in the Hong Kong Corpus of Spoken English". International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 10(1), 2005. (link). Here's the abstract:

This paper examines the use of two tones by speakers across a variety of discourse types in the Hong Kong Corpus of Spoken English (HKCSE). Specifically, it focuses on the use of the rise and rise-fall tones by speakers to assert dominance and control in different discourse types. Brazil (1997) argues that the use of the rise and the rise-fall tones is a means of exerting dominance and control at certain points in the discourse and that while conversational participants have the option to freely exchange this role throughout the discourse, in other kinds of discourse such behaviour would be seen to be usurping the role of the designated dominant speaker. The findings suggest that the choice of certain tones is determined by both the discourse type and the designated roles of the speakers, but is not confined to the native speakers or determined by gender.

David Brazil was a British linguist who died in 1995, and laid out an interesting theory of the discourse functions of intonation back in 1985. One of his ideas was that what he called "rise tones" can be used to "assert dominance and control" by holding the floor, by exerting pressure on the hearer to respond, or by reminding the hearer(s) of common ground.

But Cheng and Warren don't just present a theory with illustrative examples, they also count things. For example, in four business meetings, two chaired by women and two by men, the chairs used rise tones almost three times more often than the other participants did (329 times vs. 112 times). In conversations between academic supervisors and their supervisees, the supervisors used rise tones almost seven times more often than the supervisees (765 times vs. 117 times).

Cheng and Warren summarize their findings by placing different sorts of discourses on a scale with respect to the distribution of rise tones:

Conversations are at one extreme end where the use of the rise tone is chosen equally by participants enjoying equal status. As we move towards the other end of the continuum, we find that the degree to which designated dominant speakers use the rise tone more frequently than the other discourse participants steadily increases. The first discourse type on the continuum is the service encounter, followed by placement interview and informal office talk, next is the business meeting and, finally, academic supervision which is the furthest removed from conversation in this respect.

The authors also speculate that

...the effect of choosing to use the rise tone is probably cumulative in that the isolated use of a rise tone by a speaker might pass unnoticed, whereas repeated use might be perceived by the hearer as the assertion of dominance and control.

So maybe the problem with "Valley Girls" and other youth of the past couple of decades is really that they're, like, totally self-confident and socially aggressive? You know?

[Other Language Log "uptalk" posts:

Uptalk uptick (12/15/2005)
Angry Rises (2/11/2006)
Further thoughts on "the Affect" (3/22/2006)
Uptalk is not HRT (3/28/2006)


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 15, 2005 08:03 AM