There are many curious features of spoken language. Nobody know where they come from or how they start, but everyone has an opinion on these mannerisms. One of such mannerisms is uptalk.

In the world of linguistics, uptalk is known as high rising terminal. In other words, it means finishing a phrase or sentence by raising the pitch of your voice. Uptalk occurs all over the English speaking world, with notable occurrences in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, and especially in Northern Ireland. Like other curious features of spoken language, the origins of uptalk are guessed at, but unknown.

In the United States, people blame “Valley Girls;” in England they blame the Australians for exporting the juicy soap opera Neighbours; and in Cape Town… I’m not sure about that one. However, uptalk appears to be one of those linguistic features that has always been around. Or at least, it’s been around for much longer than people have been talking about it.

Those particularly critical of uptalk label the high rising terminal as sounding like a question. Those people report hearing an individual using uptalk as asking a series of questions. They further state that this series of question-like utterances make the speaker sound indecisive or insecure. However, such is not the case.[1]

Uptalk is quite versatile. Uptalk is a way for the speaker to ensure the listener is paying attention and following what they are saying. Uptalk is also frequently used when listing items, especially when the speaker has to think about the next item on the list. It is a way of holding the floor so the listener will not interrupt before the speaker has finished. Uptalk has a purpose and perhaps like any other speech behavior, it can be overused, but that does not take away its linguistic legitimacy.

Because language isn’t politicized enough (that was sarcasm), many people commenting on uptalk have labeled it as a gender issue plaguing the speech of young women. Others have come to women’s defense, declaring that the “uptalk epidemic” is just part of society’s unfair policing of women’s behavior. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.[2]

The uptalk discussion has received contributions from individuals varying in their qualifications to discuss language, from the BBC reporter who consulted with Mark Liberman (a celebrity, if you follow linguist a-listers) and traced uptalk back to the 9th century, to others, who refer to uptalk as a pathology disturbingly growing in popularity among female speech. The truth is, especially in the English-speaking world, communication is not gender-specific. (You have probably heard children of both genders using uptalk as they told a story, especially in the phrase “and then…”.)

The sorts of linguistic features that women are accused of using more often, such as uptalk, or fry, are things that both genders use. Linguistics studying the incidence (how often something occurs) of uptalk have not found any definitive data pointing to it being more of a feminine or masculine way of communicating. Instead, these negative critiques of uptalk appear to be related to some of the work done by linguist William Labov in the 20th century.

Labov came up with something called the “gender paradox.” According to the gender paradox, when there is an evolution in a specific language form, then women – particularly the younger women who speak that language – are much more likely than men to use that form. If the gender paradox applies to uptalk, then you can expect to hear a lot more uptalk in the future.

All attempts to communicate thoughts and ideas are good. When others are uncomfortable with the way you speak, the problem is not yours, it’s theirs. Some speech coaches ascribe to the view that uptalk is a pathology that should be eradicated from their client’s speech, the sooner the better. Or that it is generally undesirable because it makes the speaker sound indecisive, like they lack confidence. However, uptalk has its uses. At Lingua East, we can help you get rid of your uptalk, if that is what you want. But we will never force you to change who you are. It could be that you are just ahead of the curve.

Whether you choose to use uptalk or not, let them hear your ideas.

[1] That is certainly not how the uptalk I heard yesterday from Shinzo Abe’s interpreter sounded. But maybe you disagree.

[2] I am suggesting here that women may use uptalk as a tool to hold the floor, given the overwhelming incidence of men interrupting women more than they interrupt other men.