Uptalk. Uptalk?? Uptalk!! Not just for Valley Girls anymore?
Here’s an example of uptalk (or vocal fry or a high rising terminal)
Uptalk: in which declarative sentences are uttered with rising intonation at the end, as if they were questions.
Ubiquitous in my SoCal land, (although I’m more of a coastal than valley dweller) these gum chewing, ponytail swinging ultra tan and ultra nubile Valley girls perfected the art of manipulative conversational terrorism.
Is it a question? Is it a statement of fact? How do I respond? Is this a game I don’t know how to play?
So much angst. So stressful.
But it’s on my radar now…
Uptalk/vocal fry diminished for a while, but seems to have regained traction and is on the upSWING but maybe not to be confused with HRT, because there is disagreement or confusion about the two. Are they the same thing or not?
According to http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002967.html, uptalk is NOT High Rising Terminal, which lead me down another path of research about HRT, not to be confused with Hormone Replacement Therapy for those women of a certain age who need a bit of assistance in that arena. Not ME, however. My estrogen levels are fine and dandy, thank you very much? (!)
Wikipedia on “High rising terminal”
Towards the end of the statement (the terminal), the intonation starts high and rises.
This is empirically false for many instances of uptalk whose pitch tracks I’ve examined. Uptalk often starts low, at the bottom of the speaker’s range. I believe that the “high rising” idea came out of a contested 1990s theory of intonational meaning, which posited a qualitative distinction between high rises and low rises, and assigned uptalk to the category of “high rise” for theory-internal rather than empirical reasons. It’s also possible that some geographical variants of uptalk are really high rising in general, though I haven’t seen any careful studies that support this conclusion.
There are some pitch tracks and audio clips showing low-rising uptalk in the Language Log posts that Marsh cites, here and here. These are not examples of stereotypical Moon Unit Zappa uptalking — (part of) the point of those two posts was to document the use of final rises on assertions in contexts where most people don’t notice them. I don’t have sound clips of more stereotypical uptalk at hand, but I’ll dig some up and present clips and pitch tracks in a later post. For now, I’ll just give some more terminological history and a few comments on Marsh’s Times column.
The term “uptalk” was coined by James Gorman in an On Language column “Like, 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. But before long I noticed a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in my own speech. I first heard it when I myself was leaving a message. “This is Jim Gorman? I’m doing an article on Klingon? The language? From ‘Star Trek’?” I realized then that I was unwittingly, unwillingly speaking uptalk.
I was, like, appalled?
Rising intonations at the end of a sentence or phrase are not new. In many languages, a “phrase final rise” indicates a question. Some Irish, English and Southern American dialects use rises all the time. Their use at the end of a declarative statement may date back in America to the 17th century.
Nonetheless, we are seeing, well, hearing, something different. Uptalk, under various names, has been noted on this newspaper’s Op-Ed page and on National Public Radio. Cynthia McLemore, a University of Pennsylvania linguist who knows as much about uptalk as anyone, says the frequency and repetition of rises mark a new phenomenon. And although uptalk has been most common among teen-agers, in particular young women, it seems to be spreading. Says McLemore, “What’s going on now in America looks like a dialect shift.” In other words, what is happening may be a basic change in the way Americans talk.
“Scientists Found the Neurons That Respond to Uptalk”
…the human brain also makes meaning out of pitch. Like how upspeak turns any sentence into a question? Pitch matters, and you’ve got the brain cells to prove it. A new study, published Thursday in Science, found groups of neurons that listen for changes in someone’s speaking tone. Some are tuned for shifts upward, others for shifts downward, and some that fire only when a sound goes up, and then down in pitch. What’s more, these cells aren’t trained for absolute pitch — they can’t tell an A sharp from a D flat — but they listen for relative shifts, taking each voice on its own merit. This gives scientists a big boost in understanding how our brains turn sounds into meaning.
“I think most people just take for granted how good humans are at making meaning out of sound,” says Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at UC San Francisco and lead author of the new study. This makes sense — people communicated through sound for millennia before they started to scribble their thoughts down. And obviously, language and grammar matter. In previous research, Chang and some other co-authors showed that human brains had cells specialized to pick out the sounds of consonants and vowels. But vocalized communication contains nuances beyond the order that letters and words get strung together — for instance, the way humans modulate their voices up or down to emphasize a word or phrase. “These differences are all really important, because they change the meaning of the words without changing the words themselves,” says Chang. So he and his new co-authors reasoned that there might also be neurons tuned to intonation.
To find the answer, they needed direct access to the brain. Functional MRI, the famous (and occasionally maligned) method for mapping brain activity, is noninvasive, and lets you look at the whole brain all at once, but the signal is much too slow. So they enlisted some helpful epileptic patients who had electrodes implanted under their skulls. These electrodes allow their doctors to pinpoint exactly where seizures originate, and do so on the millisecond time scale. “In some cases we can cure epilepsy if we can identify precisely where the seizures are coming from,” says Chang. That millisecond resolution is a huge advantage if you are looking for how auditory signals light up the brain.
Chang and his crew recruited 10 of these electrode-outfitted patients, who volunteered to listen to sentences repeated over and over again. The sentences, four in total, were simple: “Humans value genuine behavior;” “Movies demand minimal energy;” “Reindeer are a visual animal;” “Lawyers give a relevant opinion.” The researchers recorded each using three different voices — one male, and two female — and four different intonation patterns. The first intonation was neutral (Think Ferris Bueller’s econ teacher calling “Bueller …. Bueller … Bueller…”). Then they spiced it up. The next intonation emphasized the first word (“Humans value genuine behavior.”); and another emphasized the third word (“Humans value genuine behavior.”). The last intonation was upspeak: A question?
And voila! When they ran the data, they clearly saw that the brain had specific sets of neurons tuned to pitch, distinct from those tuned to consonants and vowels. “So what it tells us is the ear and brain have taken a speech signal and deconstructed it into different elements, and processes them to derive different meanings,” says Chang. Chang says these multiple axes for meaning may have evolved because it makes communication more efficient, with a single signal containing many elements for interpretation. Not a stretch for animals as social as human beings.
That’s not even the coolest bit. These pitch-tuned neurons are actually discerning intonation on the fly. Somehow, the cells establish a baseline pitch for the incoming speech and process the ups and downs from there. To musicians, this probably isn’t surprising. It’s sort of like shifting a melody up or down a key — the melody is still recognizable. Of course, human brains also have neurons trained for absolute pitch. This probably helps with things like identifying individual voices in a crowded, noisy space. “I think people take for granted how good humans are at doing stuff like holding conversations in a busy bar where there’s all these competing sounds,” says Chang. (Source: https://www.wired.com/story/your-brain-cells-hear-the-ups-and-downs-of-language/)
Since I’m really supposed to be repainting my bedroom and not wasting time on the internet researching odd speech patterns and how they affect my already diminished brain capacity, I’ll stop here. If you’re as fascinated as I was about the subject, do some digging and read about it. I think you’ll find that reading about it makes you vulnerable to trying it out, and the danger is that you’ll lay down new neural pathways just like me and start talking that way all the time? LOLZ?
Let me warn you. It’s contagious.
Back to my DIY project and here’s another good link (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/caveman-logic/201010/the-uptalk-epidemic) and video.