There have been two articles in the newspapers this week about uptalk, the use of a rising tone in a declarative (where most of us would use a fall). In the Sunday Times the education consultant, Chris Woodhead, answered a reader’s query about “the moronic interrogative”
whereby the speaker when making the statement ends the sentence with rising intonation, thus implying they are asking a question.
Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools, confessed in his reply that
The phenomenon of rising intonation drives me mad.(I wonder if he knows that all of us use “rising intonation” in about half the intonation phrases we utter.)
Then in yesterday’s Guardian Tim Lusher asked
Have you noticed more people uptalking? You know, that tedious habit of speaking in a rising cadence, with, like, an especially perky uplift in tone at the end, so your sentence sounds like a question? Even though it isn’t?
Lusher is much better informed about the topic than Woodhead. He knows the terms “uptalk” and “high rising terminal”, and refers to possible sources in Australia and southern California. His new take on the matter is to suggest that
now there seems to be a conscious, ironic use of the tone in circulation. People are using it deliberately, humorously. What do they mean to convey? It can act as a self-deprecating pin to deflate any awkward sentiment accompanying the words, a sort of preemptive apology.
I don’t think it necessarily has any of these special meanings. It’s probably just an instance of language change. A rising tone on a final statement (made by younger people) no longer has the meaning that older people read into it (because that’s what it would mean if they used it themselves).
My advice to the EFL learner in my intonation book (§2.9 Uptalk) was
• If you were born before about 1980, do not use uptalk.
• If you were born later, you can imitate its use by native speakers: but do not overdo it. Uptalk is never essential. Bear in mind that using uptalk may annoy older people listening to you.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to this Language Log article, where there are several sound clips.