Q: Can you explain why uptalk is so popular in the media and common speech? Does raising the pitch of one’s voice at the end of a phrase convey any meaning not in the words themselves? It seems to me like a silly affectation.
A: Uptalk (rising inflections at the end of sentences that are statements as opposed to questions) does indeed carry a meaning not conveyed by the words alone, according to linguists who have studied these speech intonations or contours.
Uptalk (technically, “rising terminals” or “recurrent intonational rises”) is used for a reason: to gain a listener’s approval or attention, to invite a reaction, to emphasize an opinion, or to retain a turn in the conversation.
Two British authorities, Paul Foulkes and Gerard Docherty, reported in 2005 in the Journal of Phonetics that uptalk had begun showing up in English dialects where it wasn’t prevalent before. It had already been observed, they said, in other dialects in Britain as well as the US, Australia, and New Zealand.
“In most locations, it is characteristic mainly of young speakers,” they wrote. “In the USA, Australia, and New Zealand it is also most common in lower class and/or female speech, but by contrast it seems to be associated with the upwardly mobile in England.”
Another author, Marcel Danesi, compared the rising intonation in adolescent speech to the familiar “tag question” often added to a declarative sentence (as in, “Nice, huh?” or “We’re going now, okay?”).
“In North American adolescent talk,” Danesi wrote in 1997, “utterances such as ‘We called her up? (intonation contour like a question) … but she wasn’t there? (same contour) … so we hung up? (same contour)’ show a pattern of rising contours (as if each sentence were interrogative).”
This feature, he said, “is, in effect, a tag question without the tag.” A tag, he explained, “is a word, phrase, or clause added to a sentence to give emphasis, to seek approval, to ascertain some reaction, etc.”
By the way, the terms “up-speak” and “up-talk” (now simply “uptalk”) began appearing in 1993, according to the journal American Speech.
Even back then, USA Today reported that the phenomenon had spread throughout the country. Some have suggested it began in California with “Valley Girl” speech, but we don’t know for sure.
The linguist Cynthia McLemore, who researched uptalk among a group of University of Texas sorority sisters in 1991, has said it may represent a “dialect shift,” a change in the way we talk.
Why has the trend caught on and become so ubiquitous? It would take a sociolinguist to try to answer that. Perhaps it’s simply contagious. (Or maybe I should say, “Perhaps it’s simply contagious?”)
[Update, Aug. 15, 2014: For more theories about the origins of the rising inflection, as well as some earlier sightings, see this article from the BBC's website, published on Aug. 10, 2014.]