Tuesday 4 May 2010

uptalk in the papers

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.


  1. As a non-English speaker, I would never trace this phenomenon ('uptalk') back to the act of requesting information or confirmation; listening to the tone of speech, it seems to be more a matter of attitude ((faking) indifference, etc.) than anything else; if any "questioning" is involved, I would say, it is with a high dose of Socratic irony.
    BTW, how and when can language change be differentiated from fashion, style and fads?

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  3. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells rides again!

    From what I have heard of Woodhead from people who have come into contact with him I think the probability of his knowing anything about intonation (or most other things) is close to zero.

    I have always thought of HRT as a sort of intonationalised "you kow?"

  4. Correct me if I'm wrong, but from my personal experience, uptalk is usually a feature of a female speaking tone, with males speaking in this way being a minority. If so, one can still trace it back to an original attitude of deference on the part of the female speaker, regardless of the fact that nowadays this tone doesn't convey anything sepcial and the tonality is learned through usual social interaction.

  5. Regarding how it annoys older folk, at 33 it irritates the hell out of me. But way-older Paul Simon hates it too. It was the first thing I thought of when he I heard him sing-
    It's outrageous the food they try to serve in a public school.
    Outrageous, the way they talk to you like you're some kind of clinical fool-

    What else could he be on about?

  6. The main associations are probably:

    A. accent: depending on how well aquainted you are with accents, simply American, Californian or valley-girl,

    B. stance: indignation, and

    C. intellect: lack of understanding what it is all about, over the speaker's head, possibly lack of realising that either.

  7. Lipman

    In Britain few of us were ever acquainted with valley-girls. The consensus seems to be that young female speakers caught the intonational habit from 'Neighbours' and other Australian soaps.

  8. So what is the difference between HRT and the intonation pattern of Belfast, etc.? I'm still unclear on that.

  9. David, of course that might be the main factors why it seems to take on, but are you sure that all those successful American films and television shows every year (and Catherine Tate's impersonation) haven't any influence on the associations?

  10. Lipman

    Nobody talks about American influence. Everybody noticed the intonation in 'Neighbours' and the other family soaps.

    And these shows are fantastically popular with young girls.

    Yes, it might well be that American shows were also influential, but it's the Australian shows that were observed to be.

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