13 November 2006


Language Log has a post about the linguistic phenomenon they call “uptalk.”
I used to speak in a regular voice. I was able to assert, demand, question. Then I started teaching. At a university? And my students had this rising intonation thing? It was particularly noticeable on telephone messages. “Hello? Professor Gorman? This is Albert? From feature writing?”

I had no idea that a change in the “intonation contour” of a sentence, as linguists put it, could be as contagious as the common cold.

Turns out there's some deep spooky linguistic weirdness at work. There are quotes and links for lots of thoughtful people digging into this thing. One thing is for sure—uptalkers are not, like, just asking questions.
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 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.



Reya Mellicker said...

In Chinese medicine, uptalk is a symptom of spleen/stomach imbalance. How strange to unconsciously invoke or court disharmony, for whatever reason.

TheWayOfTheGun said...

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Agnieszka said...

I spent my entire evening reading the language log. I stayed up until 2am reading the language log! I don't know if I should thank you or curse you for pointing me to it. Descriptive linguistics, OMG!

Thorn Coyle said...

Uptalk used to be the provenance of women in academia or hierarchical workplaces, so I am dubious about the theory that it is used by people in "control of the situation". The example used of the student calling the professor certainly belies this.

It is interesting that Uptalk, like poor body image, is no longer just for women anymore. ::sigh::