Uptalk: The Phenomenon of Rising Intonation: an interview with author Paul Warren

Paul Warren author of Uptalk 1. Can you define uptalk very briefly for those who don’t know?

Uptalk is the use of rising intonation (voice pitch) at the ends of statements or parts of statements. It is sometimes referred to as the use of question intonation on statements, but this is misleading, because not all questions have rising intonation (indeed there are many question types that tend to have falling intonation, such as those which have a wh-word at the beginning, like who, what, where), and there are rises on statements that are different from uptalk rises (such as on non-final items in a list like apples, oranges, bananas and pears, or the ‘continuation rise’ that you are likely to hear at the comma in Although this has a rise, it is not a question). Typically uptalk, which is also known as upspeak and high rising terminal (amongst other terms), is used to keep an interaction going, inviting the listener into the conversation. This is a specific instance of a more general property of high pitch to show openness, while lower pitch tends to mark finality or closure. However, because rising intonation is frequently associated with questions, many lay observers criticise ‘uptalkers’ for being uncertain about what they are saying. Interestingly, though, studies have shown that uptalk is highly likely in narrative contexts, such as when people are recounting something they have witnessed or experienced firsthand. These are unlikely to be situations where the speaker is uncertain.

   2. What inspired you to write Uptalk?

As a psycholinguist, I devote a lot of my research time to looking at how we produce and understand language, especially spoken language. I have for a long time had a particular interest in how listeners interpret the intonation in utterances that they hear, and when I moved to New Zealand, a country where uptalk has a longer history than in most of the world, I was intrigued by how this particular form of intonation was interpreted. It was clear to me that non-uptalkers frequently arrived at a different interpretation from that intended by the speaker. This interest resulted in a series of research studies, during which I learned more about uptalk in different varieties of English and in other languages too. It seemed a natural next step to put what I had learned into a book where others – whether or not they are linguistics researchers – could have ready access to the wealth of information that is out there concerning the history, spread, and use of uptalk around the world.

   3. How much does it vary according to the speaker’s age, gender and regional dialect?

There are certain parts of the world where uptalk has been a feature of spoken English for quite a long time: New Zealand, Australia and parts of Canada and the United States (particularly California). But it has been reported in many other English-speaking countries, as well as in other languages, particularly either there is where contact with English-speaking communities or a clear influence of the English language on youth culture. Typically, it is associated with young women, but it is by no means exclusively used by females, nor just by the young. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that people of the generation who were young uptalkers in the 1980s have continued to use uptalk as they have grown older. There may be some historical basis for saying that uptalk is a feature of young female speech, since linguists have shown that it is often young women who initiate a change in patterns of language use. Now, however, the claim that young women are the main users of uptalk is probably more a stereotype than a reality. In fact, uptalk is so common in some parts of the English-speaking world that subtle distinctions are developing in what uptalk rises and true question rises sound like, as part of making the difference clearer.

4. What are the key features and benefits that readers will take away from Uptalk ?

What I have tried to do in this book is provide a comprehensive overview of what uptalk is like, including how it differs from other forms of rising intonation; what its many functions and meanings are; how it is distributed and used across the many varieties of English (and other languages) in which it is found; which speaker groups are more likely to use it; and how it is perceived and interpreted by listeners. For those interested in how researchers have investigated uptalk, there is also a chapter on methodology. Because there has been so much discussion of uptalk in newspapers and self-help books, as well as on the radio and television, I also wanted to provide an exploration of the media response to uptalk, including some discussion of the types of statements often used in support of the largely negative claims made by journalists and others. So Uptalk covers a lot of ground, and should be of interest to both linguists and non-linguists alike.

Find out more about Uptalk: The Phenomenon of Rising Intonation


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