November 14, 2006

Satirical cartoon uptalk is not HRT either

There's a widespread false belief that "uptalk" -- the phenomenon of final rising intonation used on phrases that aren't yes/no questions -- involves terminal pitch contours that start high and rise. As a result, some people use the unfortunate technical term "High rising terminal", abbreviated HRT, for this way of talking. But as I've argued earlier ("Uptalk is not HRT", 3/28/2006), the informal term uptalk is a better choice, since it avoids the often-false claim about the shape of this contour that's implicit in the term HRT.

Some additional evidence emerged yesterday on Fox's Family Guy (Episode FG-435 "Whistle While Your Wife Works", Air Date: Sunday, November 12, 2006), when Stewie tries to persuade Brian to break up with Jillian, who is described in the episode's press release as "very attractive but intellectually challenged". Stewie tries to make his point by satirically imitating Jillian's (alleged) uptalk, adding some annoying little nods and grimaces:

There are five rise-ending phrases in this short clip. In each case, I've given a transcribed pitch track of the end of the phrase, and also some numbers showing the pitch value (in Hz.) in the middle of some selected syllables -- or in the case of final rises on final accented syllables, in the middle of the initital lower-pitched region, and then at the location of the peak.

The first four examples are in Stewie's little "dump her" speech.

Alright, Brian, you can do this.
You can dump her.
Because once it's done, never again will you have to listen to her talk like thi......s? 199 202 182 162..334

In this first case, the low part of "this" is fully 40 Hz. lower than the value of the previous accented syllable, "talk". (The even lower pitch in the low-amplitude region at the start of "this" is the consequence of the restricted air-flow during the voiced fricative [ð].)

You know, where everything has a question mark at the end of it? 
               213         210     169                      321

Again, the low pitch value on the accented syllable of "question" is 44 Hz. lower than that value of the accented syllable of "everything".

With an upward inflection? 
       205        152 335

And in this case, the low value on the accented syllable of "inflection" is 53 Hz. lower than the previous accent on "upward".

at the end of every sentence?
      198          159  347

This time there's a 39 Hz. difference -- the low point on the stressed syllable starting the final rise is still the lowest accented syllable by almost 20%.

That's the end of Stewie's contribution. Now Brian responds in kind:

Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking.
119           128   142   105  123 313

Oh, dammit, now I'm doing it too!

Brian's uptalk is more ambiguous. The stressed syllable of "thinking" is indeed about 19 Hz. lower than the previous accented syllable "what" -- but the pre-stress dip on "was" seems to represent a genuine low-pitched target (rather than simply the pitch-depressing effect of the obstruent), and "thinking" starts up fairly rapidly. So you might believe that this a type of accent whose low point is aligned before the "beat" of the accent, rather than on or after it -- and that's one of the patterns that might plausibly be described as a "high rise", since the strong syllable of the accent is at a mid pitch value rather than at a local minimum.

And Brian's attitude towards Jillian is more ambiguous as well -- the episode's press release says that he "can't close the deal because she is so hot". But the funny thing is, though Jillian is certainly depicted as less than brilliant, she doesn't actually use uptalk very often. In the segment below, there are a couple of examples around 1:10, and a couple more around 6:00, but most of Jillian's talk is not uptalk at all. (And there's nothing like Stewie's accompanying head and face gestures.) Apparently even a cartoon stereotype of a female airhead is not as intonationally stereotyped as the other cartoon characters' stereotyped image of her is.

[Tip of the hat to Vishy Venugopalan]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 14, 2006 12:12 AM