Speech Patterns: Uptalking

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Uptalk is a speech pattern in which phrases and sentences habitually end with a rising sound, as if the statement were a question. Also known as upspeak, high-rising terminal (HRT), high-rising tone, valley girl speech, Valspeak, talking in questions, rising intonation, upward inflection, interrogatory statement, and Australian Question Intonation (AQI).

The term uptalk was introduced by journalist James Gorman in an "On Language" column in The New York Times, August 15, 1993. However, the speech pattern itself was first recognized in Australia and the U.S. at least two decades earlier.

Examples and Observations

"'I've got the next run at that software thing. I thought you might like to have a look?'

"Mark here was using upspeak, ending on an upward inclination, making what he said nearly a question but not quite." (John Lanchester, Capital. W.W. Norton, 2012)

"HRT stands for high-rise terminals. What did you think I meant? It's the technical term for 'uptalk'--the way kids speak so that every sentence ends with an interrogative tone so that it sounds like a question even when it's a statement? Like that, in fact. . . .

"While we were on holiday in the US this summer, my kids spent two weeks at that great American childhood institution: camp.

"'So what did you do today?' I'd ask my daughter at collection time.

"'Well, we went canoeing on the lake? Which was, like, really really fun? And then we had storytelling in the barn? And we all had to tell a story about, like, where we're from or our family or something?'

"Yep, she was uptalking." (Matt Seaton, The Guardian, Sep. 21, 2001)

Interpreting Uptalk (Politeness Strategies)

"[Penelope] Eckert and [Sally] McConnell-Ginet [in Language and Gender, 2003] discuss the use of questioning intonation on statements, often termed uptalk or upspeak. They suggest that the high-rise terminal, which characterises 'Valley Girl" speech, the speech style of young women primarily in California, is often analysed as a signal that those who use it do not know what they are talking about, since statements are transformed by this intonational pattern into what sound like questions. Rather than accepting this negative view of uptalk, Eckert and McConnell-Ginet suggest that questioning intonation may simply signal that the person is not giving the final word on the matter, that they are open to the topic continuing, or even that they are not yet ready to cede their turn." (Sara Mills and Louise Mullany, Language, Gender and Feminism: Theory, Methodology and Practice. Routledge, 2011)

Purposes of Uptalk

"Some speakers--especially women--deploy seemingly random question marks to hold the floor and fend off interruptions. Powerful people of both genders use it to coerce their underlings and build consensus. Penelope Eckert, a linguist at Stanford University, says one of her students observed Jamba Juice (JMBA) customers and found that fathers of undergraduates scored as the biggest uptalkers. 'They were being polite and trying to mitigate their male authoritativeness,' she says." (Caroline Winter, "Is It Useful to Sound Like an Idiot?" Bloomberg Businessweek, April 24-May 4, 2014)

"One theory as to why simple declarative statements sound like questions is that in many cases, they actually are. English is a notoriously woolly language, full of ways to say one thing and mean another. The use of uptalk could be a way to subconsciously hint that a simple statement such as 'I think we should choose the left hand turn?' has a hidden meaning. Implicit within the sentence is a question: 'Do you also think we should choose the left hand turn?'" ("The Unstoppable March of the Upward Inflection?" BBC News, August 10, 2014)

Uptalk in Australian English

"Perhaps the most recognizable intonational feature in an accent is the occurrence of high-rising terminals (HRTs) associated with Australian English. Put simply, a high-rising terminal means that there is a noticeable high rise in pitch at the end (terminal) of an utterance. Such an intonation is typical of interrogative syntax (questions) in many English accents, but in Australian, these HRTs also occur in declarative sentences (statements). This is why Australians (and others who have taken up this way of talking) can sound (at least to non-HRT speakers) like they are either always asking questions or are in constant need of confirmation . . .."(Aileen Bloomer, Patrick Griffiths, and Andrew John Merrison, Introducing Language in Use. Routledge, 2005)

Uptalk Among Young People

"Negative attitudes to uptalk are not new. In 1975, the linguist Robin Lakoff drew attention to the pattern in her book Language and Women's Place, which argued that women were socialized to talk in ways that lacked power, authority, and confidence. Rising intonation on declarative sentences was one of the features Lakoff included in her description of 'women's language,' a gendered speech style which in her view both reflected and reproduced its users' subordinate social status. More than two decades later, the rising intonation pattern can be observed among younger speakers of both sexes . . ..

"The US uptalk pattern differentiates younger from older speakers. In the British case it is debated whether the increasing use of rising intonation on declaratives is an innovation modeled on recent/current usage in the US or whether the model is Australian English, where the feature was well established even earlier." (Deborah Cameron, Working With Spoken Discourse. Sage, 2001)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Patterns: Uptalking." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/uptalk-high-rising-terminal-1692574. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Speech Patterns: Uptalking. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/uptalk-high-rising-terminal-1692574 Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Patterns: Uptalking." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/uptalk-high-rising-terminal-1692574 (accessed March 27, 2023).