linguistics

We all speak like Valley girls now

Dec. 10, 2013 at 12:46 PM ET

SNL sketch 'The Californians'
Saturday Night Live
"Then I'd go left? And take the 405-North? And from there? Just get off on Mullholland."

We are always asking questions, even when we're not. A new study suggests that "uptalk," phrasing your statements with a rise in pitch at the end, isn't just something young women do: it seems to be expanding to other demographics, including young men. 

In Southern California, anyway, young people tend to uptalk no matter their gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, suggests a small new study presented last week at the Acoustical Society of America’s annual meeting.

“The use of uptalk is certainly more than just stereotypical ‘Valley Girl speak’ in Southern California. In fact, uptalk serves several purposes in the speech of SoCal speakers, and it is used by both men and women, at least those of young age, though there are also gender differences in the use of uptalk,” write authors Amanda Ritchart, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, and Amalia Arvanti, a linguistics professor at the University of Kent in the UK.

Here's an everyday example: When the barista at Starbucks asks for the customer's name, an uptalker almost sounds like he or she is guessing at the answer (Mike? Isabelle?), "even though we know that this person is not actually questioning his or her name,” the authors write. 

Ritchart and Arvanti rounded up 23 UCSD undergrads – 12 women, 11 men, all “native speakers of SoCal English." Their backgrounds varied widely: most self-identified as middle-class, but six said they were upper-class, and four said they were lower-class. Eight of them were bilingual. But despite their differences, they all used uptalk, the authors say. 

The undergrads were asked to either retell a scene from “How I Met Your Mother” or “Scrubs” – or, in an experiment that sounds like it’s straight out of the “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “The Californians,” they had to instruct the experimenter how to get from one San Diego landmark to another. And each of them used uptalk to do it. 

“For young speakers in Southern California, no matter the gender, the ethnicity, the socioeconomic background, everyone uses uptalk,” Ritchart says. 

It’s easy to dismiss uptalk as the airhead’s language quirk, but it can be a useful way of speaking: Ritchart and Arvanti identified an interesting way uptalk is used – to “hold the floor,” or to let the listener know they’re not done talking. The uptalk sort of acts as a verbal comma, explains Arvanti, who notes that their study is not the first to find this usage. For example, in the map experiment, the speaker might say something like, “OK, so, go toward Warren?” before continuing on with his instructions (“And then do you see Valley Mall?”). Ritchart and Arvanti found that 45 percent of “floor holding” instances used uptalk, and 16 percent of simple statements did, too. 

Other researchers have shown that young women tend to drive changes in the way we speak, Arvanti says. 

"There are many studies which show that young women drive change (usually what is termed 'change from below,' that is, changes that speakers are not fully aware of)," she said in an email. Watch for vocal fry -- a lower-pitched, almost guttural sound recently identified in young women's speech -- to take over next.


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