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Uptalk: Speaking of a Cautionary Tale

This material courtesy of Nancy Burkhalter, PhD

People in every culture judge others based on their language. After only a few sentences, they make conclusions about their education, age, social class, ethnicity, and birthplace. Since so many assumptions are based on one’s language, it is important to know about uptalk, a craze sweeping the U.S., because it can negatively affect perceptions of its users.

Uptalk refers to a sing-songy speech pattern that sounds as if people are asking a question when they aren’t, as in “I went to the store? and bought some bread? and then I went to the pharmacy? and picked up some medicine?”

James Gorman coined the term uptalk in 1993, but it was first noticed in Australian English as early as 1965 and is rapidly spreading worldwide. It is most prevalent among people 25 years and younger, and predominantly among females, although it is broadening to other age groups and even to high profile and powerful males, notably President George W. Bush, who used it liberally in his very formal State of the Union address in January.

Uptalkers defend its utility, claiming it invites others into the conversation, as if to say, “Are you following my point?” It makes exchanges seem more collaborative, they say, and not just one person talking at someone. It makes them feel less bossy and opinionated. Linguists say it may also function as a floor-holding technique, as in, “I’m not done yet, so please don’t interrupt.” Interestingly, the vast majority of uptalkers do not realize they or others are using it, giving weight to the notion that it may be on its way to becoming a standard speech pattern.

The downside is that uptalk can irritate because it is a nonstandard usage. Perhaps worse, it can make the user sound tentative and indecisive, as if asking for approval or agreement. To verify this, one only has to imagine the pattern being used to deliver difficult news, as a doctor talking to a patient: “I’m sorry to say this? but your condition? is terminal?” Or a judge sentencing a criminal: “I’m sentencing you? to life in prison? without parole?” In the workplace, women are often cautioned not to use uptalk since they have enough difficulty getting equal pay, gaining respect for their opinions, and instilling confidence in their leadership abilities. That goes double for young people, who have even more trouble gaining credibility with those in power.

In sum, uptalk is a double-edged sword: it can signal identity and affiliation to other uptalkers, but it can also exclude them from more influential groups who will question their authority and credibility because of it.

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