The English language was once a fairly precise way of communicating. And it still is, in written form. But increasingly, when Americans speak it, it takes some rather odd twists and turns.
Perhaps none of these trends has sparked the backlash of “uptalk,” the habit of raising your voice slightly at the end of a declarative sentence, transforming it into a question.
Uptalk was a comic feature of the 1995 film “Clueless,” in which the female characters at Beverly Hills High School spoke in the Valley Girl cadence that emerged from California in the 1980s. Diane DiResta, a speech pathologist and public speaking coach and trainer based in New York, says today's widespread uptalk trend probably has much of its origins in that movie.
“I find that when something becomes popularized in the media it starts to spread,” DiResta told ConsumerAffairs. “Now, with young people, it has become peer identity.”
The language of youth
In an episode of the Simpsons, the family has gone to the beach for a week and Lisa is trying to reinvent herself so she can fit in with the cool kids. When she says something intelligent in a declarative sentence, she gets strange looks. When she repeats it in uptalk, with a few “you knows” thrown in, she gets a positive reaction.
Uptalk may be more prevalent in young women but DiResta notes it has crept into male speaking habits as well. She says young people adopt uptalk sometimes because they may think making a declarative sentence will make them seem arrogant.
“It's almost as if people are afraid to put a stake in the ground and make a commitment,” she says.
It may also have something to do with a desire to sound “cool.” Teacher and poet Taylor Mali, in the video below, calls it a “tragically hip interrogative tone.”
Not everyone uptalks
You may think you hear uptalk everywhere, but you don't.
“I always tell my audiences the one place I don't hear uptalk is in the executive suite or boardroom,” DiResta said.
Her message to young managers rising through the ranks is to break the uptalk habit if they want their careers to advance. Leadership, after all, requires a certain level of confidence.
These speech abnormalities have nothing to do with intelligence or education. If you listen to NPR regularly, you'll heard PhD after PhD interviewed on its programs begin each answer to the interviewer's question with “So...”
DiResta says “so” is the new “um.” No one really knows the origin of “so” to begin sentences, but she tells her clients that these filler words, and overworked phrases like “at the end of the day,” rob the speaker of credibility. For young people, that can have dramatic results.
“I tell people, how you speak with your peers is one thing, but when you're in the workplace, uptalk and other speech affectations will work against you,” DiResta said, simply and declaratively.