This blog post is about intonation. Or, more specifically, about the intonation patterns used with statements like the previous one. When reading this sentence aloud, most anglophones would probably use a falling intonation pattern in contrast to, say, the rising pattern of a question. However, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, in normal conversation such sentences are sometimes said with a question-like rise. This intonation pattern can have the effect of making statements sound like questions to the uninitiated? And this includes such firm facts as your occupation? And your name?

The rising statement intonation is often referred to as uptalk or, in an academic context, the High Rising Terminal or HRT. Even though the phenomenon is highly noticeable to listeners and though it is sometimes associated with younger speakers, using uptalk rises on statements is actually neither a new tendency or a rare one. First off, evidence suggests uptalk patterns have been used since at least the 1970s in Australia and probably since the 1950s in North America. Secondly, uptalk is a common phenomenon. If you live in an English-speaking environment, you are almost certain to have heard this intonation pattern in real life – and it is very probable that you use it yourself. This is especially the case if you live in certain areas of North America, or in the Antipodes, where this intonation pattern is especially prolific (and well-documented). However, uptalk has also become a stable in many other varieties of English, including British English (Grabe et al 2005).

In fact, uptalk rises have become so established in many varieties of English that their precise form and timing of an uptalk pattern varies in systematic ways between each variety. Californian English, for instance, has low-range uptalk rises that start from a low point in the speaker’s pitch range (L* L-H% in ToBI annotation, in Richart and Arvaniti 2013), whereas in Australian English, uptalk rises generally start later and have a more dramatic rise from low to very high (L* H-H%, in Fletcher and Harrington 2001). Even within closely-related varieties, it is possible to find distinct differences. My own research suggests that the prevalent Australian English low-onset uptalk rise is also common in Sydney Aboriginal English but in this variety it shares the scene with two other uptalk patterns: H* H-H%, which starts at a higher point in the speaker’s pitch range, and H* L-H% where the pitch dips slightly before rising.

Here are some examples of these 3 different types of uptalk rises in Sydney Aboriginal English:

 

“Or the Arakwal” spoken with a low-onset high rise (L* H-H%)

 

“Hosting the event” spoken with a high-onset high rise (H* H-H%)

 

“People who’s coming” spoken with a high-range fall-rise (H* L-H%)

 

The thing that makes the uptalk intonation pattern special is that despite its widespread use among people from different social classes, genders and ethnicities (e.g. here), it has come to be commonly seen as insecure, unsure and submissive. The reason behind this probably partly results from the association between rising intonation patterns and questions mentioned at the beginning of this post. Furthermore, it may also stem from the association between uptalk and young women who are stereotypically seen as less assertive. It is important to note, however that such an association is not unusual for a new linguistic pattern. Young females are commonly regarded as sociolinguistic innovators, pioneering new words and pronunciations.

Further to the point, the sociolinguistic literature has argued for a while now that uptalk has much more to do with co-operative intent – wanting to engage the listener or hold the floor – than with insecurity. Fletcher et al 2002 found that in Australian English, different rising intonation patterns (both uptalk and otherwise) were used with different discourse functions. For instance, when the speaker presented the listener with new information, she would use a different rise from when she talked about knowledge that was shared between both participants in the conversation. In addition to this, in my own study, the use of uptalk rises varies with sociolinguistic roles. Speakers that are interviewing others use far fewer uptalk rises than speakers that are being interviewed. Indeed, speaker role seems to be a much better predictor for uptalk use than age or gender. Some speakers in my corpus also seem to use more uptalk rises when speaking in an ethnically marked style, meaning there is potential for the intonation pattern to be tied in with ethnicity in the Sydney Aboriginal community. Taken together, this type of results suggests that uptalk fulfills a number of roles in conversational communication that cannot simply be explained by labelling the pattern as a sign of insecurity.

Uptalk rises are a part of many varieties of English whether we want to admit it or not, and they have been for quite a while. Maybe it is time we embraced this intonational feature instead of fighting it. Those annoying teens could be using uptalk as an important signal of their roles, ethnicities or communicative intent. You might even try using it yourself. After all, everyone wants to be perceived as co-operative?

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