March 28, 2006

Uptalk is not HRT

Ben Zimmer recently pointed me to an interesting article by Stefanie Marsh in the Times of London about "The rise of the interrogatory statement" (3/28/2006), which cites a couple of Language Log posts. These posts connected Marsh to some sociolinguistic research (published in the International Journal of Copus Linguistics in October of 2005) that she probably wouldn't have found otherwise, and thereby influenced her conclusions.

It's nice to see this example of a weblog mediating between the scientific literature and the popular press, and so I'm going to add another attempt to influence the Anglophere's ongoing virtual conversation about what Marsh's headline calls "the interrogatory statement". "Uptalk", invented by a journalist in 1993, is a good term for the practice of ending assertions with rising pitch. "High rising terminal" or "HRT", invented by linguists, is a bad term, making a false claim about the phonetics of the phenomenon. It should be abandoned.

The Wikipedia article on "High rising terminal" (to which a search for "uptalk" redirects you, alas) says:

Towards the end of the statement (the terminal), the intonation starts high and rises.

This is empirically false for many instances of uptalk whose pitch tracks I've examined. Uptalk often starts low, at the bottom of the speaker's range. I believe that the "high rising" idea came out of a contested 1990s theory of intonational meaning, which posited a qualitative distinction between high rises and low rises, and assigned uptalk to the category of "high rise" for theory-internal rather than empirical reasons. It's also possible that some geographical variants of uptalk are really high rising in general, though I haven't seen any careful studies that support this conclusion.

There are some pitch tracks and audio clips showing low-rising uptalk in the Language Log posts that Marsh cites, here and here. These are not examples of stereotypical Moon Unit Zappa uptalking -- (part of) the point of those two posts was to document the use of final rises on assertions in contexts where most people don't notice them. I don't have sound clips of more stereotypical uptalk at hand, but I'll dig some up and present clips and pitch tracks in a later post. For now, I'll just give some more terminological history and a few comments on Marsh's Times column.

The term "uptalk" was coined by James Gorman in an On Language column "Like, uptalk?":

I used to speak in a regular voice. I was able to assert, demand, question. Then I started teaching. At a university? And my students had this rising intonation thing? It was particularly noticeable on telephone messages. "Hello? Professor Gorman? This is Albert? From feature writing?"

I had no idea that a change in the "intonation contour" of a sentence, as linguists put it, could be as contagious as the common cold. But before long I noticed a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in my own speech. I first heard it when I myself was leaving a message. "This is Jim Gorman? I'm doing an article on Klingon? The language? From 'Star Trek'?" I realized then that I was unwittingly, unwillingly speaking uptalk.

I was, like, appalled?

Rising intonations at the end of a sentence or phrase are not new. In many languages, a "phrase final rise" indicates a question. Some Irish, English and Southern American dialects use rises all the time. Their use at the end of a declarative statement may date back in America to the 17th century.

Nonetheless, we are seeing, well, hearing, something different. Uptalk, under various names, has been noted on this newspaper's Op-Ed page and on National Public Radio. Cynthia McLemore, a University of Pennsylvania linguist who knows as much about uptalk as anyone, says the frequency and repetition of rises mark a new phenomenon. And although uptalk has been most common among teen-agers, in particular young women, it seems to be spreading. Says McLemore, "What's going on now in America looks like a dialect shift." In other words, what is happening may be a basic change in the way Americans talk.

[NYT 8/15/1993]

Gorman's column is smart and accurate as well as funny. He expresses the stigma of uptalk, but removes the nastiness by being appalled at his own usage. And uptalk is an excellent coinage: short, clear and memorable. It prospered in the linguistic marketplace, as it deserved to do, and got an entry in the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary:

A manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with a rising intonation as though they were questions.

Many people are still just as appalled by uptalk as Gorman was. Stefanie Marsh's article begins:

My sister lives in Los Angeles, and has picked up this irritating verbal tic, “uptalk”, which means that she uses an interrogative tone even when making statements such as: “I never want to talk to you again (?)” In the old days I could pretend to listen to her on the phone while actually reading a book — I would do this by keeping one ear on her intonation and lobbing a well-placed “in principle, I would say yes”, after every one of her high notes. These days when I do that she sighs and says flatly: “It wasn’t a question, Stefanie.”

Ms. Marsh was moved to write because Jason Horowitz's mean-spirited take-down of "City Girl Squawk" in the New York Observer mentioned uptalk. She shares his irritation with this "verbal tic" as well as his low opinion of its female vectors:

But uptalk has spread far beyond California and the dur-brained Valley Girls who are supposed to have invented it. An article in last week’s New York Observer confirms that “high-rise terminals” have infected the East Coast, while psychology professors writing in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail talk of an “epidemic” in Canada. We won’t even talk about Australia.

Note the repeated infectious disease metaphors. The low status of the people whose usage is noticed -- students, women, benighted colonials -- is an interesting example of what Arnold Zwicky has called the "out-group illusion":

... people pay attention selectively to members of groups they don't see themselves as belonging to and so locate [novel linguistic] phenomena as characteristics of these groups.

Since non-uptalkers often think that uptalk rises are really meant as questions, and assign low status to the people they associate uptalk with, it's natural to conclude that uptalk must be a signal of self-doubt and need for reassurance. As Marsh explains

...the view held by experts was that uptalk was a symptom of self-doubt: framing your statements as questions was thought to indicate a desire for approval. Research by DiResta Communications in 2001 found that uptalk was “destroying the credibility of millions of professionals who are unknowingly falling victim to this increasingly common form of speech”. DiResta claimed that uptalk was the result of having either foreign parents or low self-esteem. The bottom line was that nobody could take you seriously as a boss when you pronounced “You’re fired!” as “You’re fired?”

Similar theories were commonly expressed during the original flurry of uptalk discussion in the early 1990s. But thanks to the internet, contrary (and I think more accurate) opinions are now more easily accessible. Marsh continues:

New studies show that people who use uptalk are not insecure wallflowers but powerful speakers who like getting their own way: teachers, talk-show hosts, politicians and facetious shop assistants.

Mark Liberman, a phonetician at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been monitoring George W. Bush’s speeches on his fascinating weblog Language Log, points out that the President has started peppering his Iraq speeches with HRTs. Why? Not, apparently, because Bush’s confidence is failing him. Rather, it has more to do with an aggressive need to direct conversation. Liberman quotes from a linguistics paper published last year in which scientists counted the number of HRTs used in real-life conversations: “In four business meetings . . . the chairs (sic) used rise tones almost three times more often than the other participants did.

“In conversations between academic supervisors and their supervisees, the supervisors used rise tones almost seven times more often than the supervisees. So maybe the problem with ‘Valley Girls’ and other youth of the past couple of decades,” continues Liberman, “is really that they’re, like, totally self-confident and socially aggressive?” This news seems to have percolated down to primary schools ages ago. Parents: you are being had.

[Other Language Log "uptalk" posts:

This is, like, such total crap? (5/15/2005)
Uptalk uptick (12/15/2005)
Angry Rises (2/11/2006)
Further thoughts on "the Affect" (3/22/2006)


[Update: Kathe Burt writes (from Oregon):

I have friends who talk this way, and it seems to me that they *do* expect me to say "uh-huh" or something else vaguely positive when they pause after the rise in tone. If I don't, they think I'm not listening.

As I understand it, uptalk is often (intended and understood) as an invitation for the interlocutor at least to signal attention and perhaps also to assent.

The key thing is that "uptalk" is not a 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.

But there are quite a few reasons for final rises in (most forms of) English: the intitial if-clause of a conditional or the first option of an exclusive disjunction is often rising; lists may be presented with rises on their non-final members; and of course yes-no questions are stereotypically performed with final rises.

Some dialects apparently use final rises as the default option, or at least much more often than speakers of other dialects expect. This is apparently true of Belfast English, for example -- and something similar has apparently been happening with the world-wide spread of uptalk over the past couple of decades, at least in the sense that some people have come to use final rises much more often. It's possible that the thin edge of the uptalk wedge, so to speak, has been the "are you with me?" rise. Pretty much all English speakers use this sometimes, or at least can do so if they choose to. But if someone chooses to do this almost all the time, then its force fades with repetition, and perhaps in some cases becomes almost totally bleached out.

It's also worth mentioning that the form of final rises can vary a lot. The starting point and ending point can move around, with respect to the speaker's pitch range and also with respect to the immediately preceding material. The rate of rising and the alignment with the words of the message also vary. It remains unclear, in my opinion, which aspects of this variation are phonetic dimensions that speakers can choose to deploy to a greater or lesser degree, like the choice of how fast or loud to talk, and which aspects involve qualitatively different alternatives, like the choice between two different words. So if you're interested in prosody, communication and dialect variation, this is a great topic to study.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 28, 2006 10:30 AM