What’s up with Uptalk?


Some speakers make a sentence sound like a question?

This is a phenomenon called a High Rising Terminal, but is also known popularly as Upspeak, Uptalk, or Valley Girl speech.

Let’s look at the ups and downs of “Uptalk”.

The High Rising Terminal (HRT) is a speech pattern in which the speaker ends a phrase or a sentence with a rising intonation. This makes a declarative sentence (that is, a statement) sound like an interrogative (a question).

As we’ve seen on this blog frequently, people have very passionate opinions about language and this topic is no different.

The cry of the “grammar police” is: Down with Uptalk! There are numerous self-help articles online that rail against it, such as Uptalk – What it is and Why You Don’t Ever Want to Do it! and Avoid “Uptalk” to Communicate With More Confidence.

The HRT is stigmatized and criticized as a gendered speech style, a feature of “women’s language” because of its association with the Californian “Valley Girl” stereotype. It’s said that the feature indicates the speaker’s lack of power, authority, and confidence. It’s ridiculed for supposedly expressing uncertainty or hesitation, because it seeks confirmation or approval, and shows a lack of confidence and conviction. It’s believed that this is a common feature of women’s speech because girls are taught to “play nice”, be less controlling, and sound less bossy.

Language “experts” urge women to avoid using the lilt to cease undermining their credibility and authority, to stop being overlooked and ignored, and to start being taken seriously.

Many linguists argue against these interpretations. Studies show that the HRT can signal that the speaker hasn’t finished talking yet and is fending off interruptions. It can mean that the speaker is open to the topic continuing. Some say it is used to say something akin to “are you with me?”, which is designed to elicit a reply such as “uh-huh” to ensure the other person is paying attention (in what linguists call a positive minimal response). Rather than showing a lack of confidence, some linguists report that the HRT expresses self-confidence and power because it commands and controls conversation.

Clearly, there is no single meaning of the HRT.

For many English speakers, the HRT is not a “habit” but an accent feature used by both women and men.  It’s a norm in Australian English (some believe incorrectly that it originated with Australian soap operas) and New Zealand English (which may be the original source of the feature). The HRT has spread to many varieties of English, including the US, Canada, Britain, and South Africa. Many people believe that it is a recent thing that has been around since the 1980s, but linguists claim it has been around since World War II, and might even go back hundreds of years in one form or another.

The HRT is more interesting than we might first think, so perhaps it’s time to ease up on “Uptalk”.

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

1 Comment on "What’s up with Uptalk?"

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  1. Relevant Information says:

    Norwegeans use HRT naturally.

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