December 15, 2005

Uptalk uptick?

People have reacted to President George W. Bush's recent series of speeches on Iraq in generally predictable ways. Andrew Sullivan is pleased:

Something remarkable has been going on these past few weeks. The president has begun to be a real war-leader. He is conceding mistakes, he is preparing people for bad news, he is leveling with the American people, he is taking questions from audiences who aren't pre-selected or rehearsed. Some of us have been begging him to do this for, er, years. Now that he is, his ratings are nudging up.

Others, unsurprisingly, are not as enthusiastic. This being Language Log, I'll focus on something that other commentators have missed: an apparent uptick in presidential uptalk.

In his 12/12/2005 speech at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council (transcript and video stream at the White House web site), the president leads with 18 seconds of phrases with final rises :

Thank you. Thanks for the warm welcome /
Thank you for the chance to come and speak to the -
Philadelphia World Affairs Council. /
This is an important organization that has uh since 1949, has provided a[@C] forum for debate / and 
discussion on important issues. /

To be more precise, his phrase-final pitch contours range from slightly falling, to level, to sharply rising. All are within the range of what would called "uptalk" if produced by a young woman from the San Fernando Valley -- though in fact this pattern has always been widely distributed among American regions, classes and sexes:

The president then switches to a few phrases ending with the intonational falls that are more normal in his speeches (audio clip):

I've come to discuss an issue -
that's really important, \
and that is victory in the war on terror. \
And that war started on September the 11th, 2001, \
when our nation awoke to a[@C] sudden attack. \
Like generations before us, we have accepted new responsibilities, \
confronting dangers with new resolve. \

Then he deploys a few up/down alternations -- a common rhetorical pattern:

We're taking the fight to those who attacked us /
and to those who share their murderous vision for future attacks. \
We will fight this war without wavering, /
and we'll prevail. \
The war on terror will take many turns, and the enemy must be defeated on many b- -
on- on every battlefield, from the \
streets of Western cities to the mountains of Afghanistan, to the tribal regions of Pakistan,-
to the islands of Southeast Asia and to the Horn of Africa. \
Yet the terrorists have made it clear that Iraq /
is the central front in their war against humanity, \
so we must recognize Iraq is the central front -
in the war on terror. \

And then comes the part that caught my attention: 43 seconds of relentless uptalk (audio clip):

Last month, my administration released a[@C] document called -
the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" /
and in recent weeks I've been discussing our strategy with the American people. /
At the U.S. Naval Academy, I spoke about our efforts to defeat the terrorists /
and train Iraqi security forces so they can provide safety for their own citizens. /
Last week before the Council on Foreign Relations, /
I explained how we are working with Iraqi forces /
and Iraqi leaders / to
help Iraqis improve security and restore order, /
to rebuild cities taken from the enemy, /
and to help the national government revitalize Iraq's infrastructure and economy. /

To highlight the prosodic issues here, consider the difference in sound -- and in the appearance of pitch tracks -- between the up-talk rendition of "economy" at the end of the passage quoted above, and a final-falling version of the same word in the middle of a sentence later in the same speech (audio clip):

On the economic side, / we're helping the Iraqis restore their infrastructure, \
reform their economy, \
and build the prosperity that will give all Iraqis a stake \ in a free and peaceful Iraq. \

Although I haven't checked this systematically, I've listened to quite a few of President Bush's speeches, and the long stretches of uptalk in this speech strikes me as a very unusual pattern for him.

What does it mean? Why did President Bush use final rises so often in (certain parts of) this speech? And in this speech, why does he use final rises on some phrases, and falls on others? Listen to the speech, and think about it for yourself. I'll explain my own evaluation in another post.

[For a hint about one aspect of the answer, read this.]

[Other Language Log "uptalk" posts:

This is, like, such total crap? (5/15/2005)
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 December 15, 2005 11:14 AM