THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

21 July 2010

Voices of the UK - I'm making a statement but it sounds like a question?

This week's recording is of young speakers in the county of Devon, and it threw up some great examples of what is variously known as "uptalk", "high rising terminal" or, "the thing lots of characters in Australian soap operas did which somehow infected teen viewers in the UK" (we don't hold this opinion, by the way). It is the use of an intonation contour (the melody line of speech) that goes up at the end of a sentence or phrase.

These contours are linguistically significant to speakers of many languages, including English, because they can be used to signal that a sentence or proposition is a question without changing the order of the words in the sentence. For example, "You're coming" with a falling-off of intonation is a declaration. We can say, "Are you coming?" to turn it into a question, but we can also say, "You're coming?" and make it sound interrogative by applying the rising intonation pattern.

Have a listen to the way our speaker says a couple of the phrase-final segments like  "...I am" and "...London accent" in clip 1:

(Or play it in your default media player.)

The same speaker's intonation also goes up on "...understand her" and "...what she's saying" in clip 2:

(Or play it in your default media player.)

And her friend does something similar on "...totally hated that" and "... might like really like it" in clip 3:

(Or play it in your default media player.)

Uptalk is, like 'like', a characteristic of the speech of the young that older speakers often criticise. However as with many features of English accents that we're finding in our collection, it is not really new. Upward intonation at the end of 'statements' or declarative sentences has long been a feature of Irish accents, Bristol English and accents of the southern US.

There is a great blog piece on uptalk by the phonetician Mark Liberman, on Language Log here. It neatly debunks the idea that this phenomenon shows a rise in self-doubt or constant need for approval amongst those who use it. I very much like the response made by a reader of the blog, Kathe Burt:

"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 [of] 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 [with them]."

I think she is right in drawing the distinction between (a) a speaker using intonation to ask a 'real' question and (b) a speaker checking that the listener is paying attention. These Devon teenagers are definitely using intonation to signal case (b). Furthermore, she points out that we are wrong to interpret this upward intonation as a 'doubtful tone' when in fact the speaker is probably covertly asking for a nod or an "uh-huh"”. This is not out of ‘neediness’, but because they assume that the listener agrees anyway.

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