The language anomaly called uptalk isn’t just for young, white women anymore, and it’s spread far beyond California.
When someone raises the pitch of his or her voice at the end of a sentence, it’s usually to ask a question. Unless you’re a southern Californian.
“Valley Girl” speech, or uptalk, is a linguistic phenomenon in which declarative sentences receive the pitch rise normally reserved for questions.
To those unfamiliar with the dialect, the speaker may sound unsure of what he or she is saying, often giving off an air of “ditzy” unconcern.
Though it was first spoken by young, white, southern Californian women, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are finding that it’s becoming more and more common among men.
The UCSD researchers recorded the voices of 12 college-aged women and 11 men, all of whom were native southern Californians. Researchers recorded their typical speech while giving directions or recounting an episode of How I Met Your Mother or Scrubs.
Researchers found that while uptalk is indeed a southern Californian dialect, it transcends gender, ethnicity, bilingualism, and socioeconomic status.
The scientists found four types of speech in which uptalk was used most often:
- simple statements, such as “You’re welcome.”
- holding the floor or ensuring that the speaker is not interrupted
- confirmation requests to see whether someone is still listening or understanding
- questions (as one would expect)
Dr. Amanda Richart, a linguist and co-author of the study, is a southern California native and self-professed uptalker. She presented her findings Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.
While many men seem to be adopting this vocal uptick, Richart’s father, a Midwestern native, resists the urge.
“It’s especially becoming more pervasive,” Richart told Healthline. “It may be that men are using it more. While my mother still uses it, you’ll never hear my father using it.”
Richart says she wants to expand her study to find out how often uptalk is used outside of southern California. Uptalk—also called high rising terminal—has been heard in Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and other parts of the globe where English is spoken.
Uptalk, according to the UCSD researchers, creates “a fuzzy area for non-uptalkers that leads to stereotypic parody of uptalkers as insecure, shallow, or non-intellectual.”
“To the Midwesterner, the southern California speakers may sound tentative or even ditzy,” said study co-author Amalia Arvaniti, a professor of linguistics at the University of Kent in the U.K.
The stereotype many not ring true. One study found that more than a third of all Jeopardy! contestants speak in uptalk, which makes sense considering that the show is structured so that answers must be given in the form of a question.
The Jeopardy! uptalk study, published in the journal Gender & Society, found that male contestants typically used uptalk when surrounded by female contestants, or when correcting a woman after she gave a response.
But there’s a gender difference in usage: the more successful a male contestant was the less likely he was to use uptalk, while more successful women tended to use uptalk more.
The use of and dissemination of language is complicated and is constantly evolving.
A 2011 study by linguistics and psychology professors at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, examined how a simple rise in pitch is perceived.
They found, “the meaning of uptalk results from a complex interaction of time, presupposition, and inference. Given the complex nature of uptalk, it’s no wonder everyone is talking it up.”