Uptalk – the use of rising intonation that appears to make statements sound like questions – has been referred to in media reports as an ‘irritating verbal tic’ or a ‘real credibility killer’. It has been claimed to indicate ‘insecurity in young women’ and is frequently associated with the Valley-girl speech of Southern California. A stereotype has developed that portrays young women using uptalk where they should be producing falling intonation, seemingly questioning everything that comes out of their own mouths and thereby showing their own uncertainty about what they are saying. In my new Cambridge University Press book, Uptalk: the phenomenon of rising intonation (www.cambridge.org/uptalk), I review the research findings on uptalk and consider the basis for such stereotypes.
Uptalk is not restricted to Southern California or even to just a few varieties of English. It is found, to varying degrees, in northern and southern hemisphere varieties, in the New World and in the old. It has been documented in New Zealand and Australian English since the 1960s and in the United States since the 1970s. Some reports suggest that it was also present in Canadian English in the 1960s. Other studies report it for South African and British English, as well as the English of the Falkland Islands. It is not limited to English, but has also been reported in a range of other languages. Such reports often link the uptake of uptalk to contact between these languages and English (as has been argued for uptalk in French in bilingual Canada) or to the influence of English-dominated media and youth culture.
The typical association of uptalk with speakers who are young and female is reflected in a wealth of studies that show a greater likelihood that it will be used by young women than by other speaker groups. Since young women are frequently the language innovators, introducing a change before it is taken up by other groups, it is not surprising that uptalk was first noticed in the speech of this group. However, some recent studies show uptalk to be at least as frequent in male as in female speech. They also provide evidence of older uptalkers too, suggesting that uptalk is not simply a transient habit of young speakers but something that may stay with speakers as they get older.
Careful consideration of the role of rising intonation is helpful for an understanding of what uptalk might mean. Across languages, high voice pitch is frequently associated with openness, while low pitch marks closure. On this basis, it is not surprising that questions often finish at a high pitch, since questions keep the floor open and invite a response. It is worth noting though that not all questions have rising intonation and that not all rises indicate questions. Listen for instance to questions beginning with a wh-word such as what, which, where – these will typically have falling intonation, arguably because the question is already signalled by the wh-word. And listen to the intonation a speaker uses when listing things – the items before the final one will frequently be produced with rising intonation showing that the list has not finished. So openness is associated not only with questioning, but also with incompleteness, as in list intonation. Likewise, openness keeps a conversation going, and invites the listener to take part – these are functions frequently fulfilled by uptalk.
Despite what is often claimed in the media, the contexts in which uptalk is used generally make it clear that the speaker is not asking questions in the usual sense. This is also reflected in the types of feedback provided by listeners, such as head nods and encouragement to continue. In addition, recent detailed research has also shown that the shape of the rising contour found in uptalk is not always the same as that used in questions, and that listeners are sensitive to these different shapes. This suggests that speakers may be developing ways of maintaining a distinction between questions and statements.
Far from being a phenomenon that ‘infested young women’s speech during the late 1990s’, uptalk has a long history and is used by both female and male speakers of all ages. Rather than being deployed to indicate uncertainty, it has a positive function of drawing listeners into a narrative or conversation. Time will tell whether it will remain a feature of English, and whether its survival might be assisted by adaptation to a form that is distinct from questions.