Are You Telling Me or Asking Me?

I’ve been digging around the internet trying to discover the linguistic answer to why so many females (and increasing numbers of males) end declarative sentences with an interrogative lilt. You know, no matter what they say, even when it’s a universally accepted fact, their voices rise at the end of sentences as if they’re asking a question.

kim-jong-un_416x416Kim Jong-un is a North Korean dictator?

Kim Jong-un has a bad haircut?

Kim Jong-un isn’t blessed with a self-deprecating sense-of-humor?

For whatever reason, this linguistic affectation bugs the hell out of me. I know, I certainly have more pressing concerns — shit like spousal cancer, maternal dementia, my dog Saisy’s insufferable halitosis — but goddamn it, I’m sick and tired of hearing far flung NPR correspondents say “the critical mass of a bare mass sphere of plutonium-239 is 8-10kg? as if they’re asking, “Do you think breast-feeding at a rodeo is tackier than breast-feeding at a Miss Utah beauty pageant?”

I started my quixotic linguistic NetQuest by typing into Google “interrogative lilt” and garnered lots of hits. My first stop was Answer.com, a website where you can pose a question and have site visitors provide possible answers. Whoever asked the question gets to choose what she considers the best answer and then some sort of arbiter at the site sifts through the received answers and selects what he/she/it deems worthy of mentioning. It’s sort of like Wikipedia except that the responders aren’t even knowledgeable amateurs but uninformed web addicts with way too much time on their hands, in other words, cranks like me. It’s about as scientific as a History Channel feature on Noah’s Ark, but, anyway, here’s Answers.com best guess:

[The interrogative lilt] is mildly irritating. I think it is an attention getting (sic) device. People do it who are used to being ignored. Asking a question often gets an answer; the listener’s ears perk up. That is why it is annoying because you perk your ears up for nothing.

transformations-identity-construction-in-contemporary-cultureSecond on the Interrogative Lilt hierarchy of Google search hits was endnote 221 on page 367 of Grant McCracken’s Transformations Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. From what I can glean, McCracken writes about how consumers construct new identities through acquisitions, like newbie surfers peroxiding their hair and stocking up on Rusty tee shirts and Reef footwear (though he doesn’t use that example).

Anyway, I don’t know the context of the endnote, but it reads, “The Interrogative Lilt turns statements into questions, listeners into authorities, and it helps mark and construct power difference between two conversational partners.” This statement is not all that different from the Answer.com supposition – but the endnote also provides two other ways to describe the interrogative lilt – “uptalk” and High Rising Terminal (HRT), which is official linguistic terminology.

These two terms allowed me to expand my search, and I discovered that what I’m going to continue to call the interrogative lilt (IL) is a hot topic that spawns wide-ranging responses. Many people see the predominance of women ILers as a signal of insecurity. Linguist Robin Lakoff first noticed the phenomenon in 1975 in Australia and attributes the effect to the speaker’s seeking affirmation.

There’s a notable study by William and Mary sociologist Thomas Linneman that analyzes Jeopardy contestants’’ use of IL. According to Bloomberg Business Week’s Caroline Winter, “In total, [Linneman] found that contestants answered 37 percent of the 5,473 given questions using upstalk. In terms of gender, the findings, published in 2013, exposed an unexpected correlation: Successful women were more likely to use uptalk than less successful women, whereas the reverse was true for men.” Linneman dismisses the notion that IL’s only function is to indicate uncertainty but contends that it’s meant to compensate for success.

Mark Liberman who publishes the blog Language Log cites new studies that “show that people who use uptalk are not insecure wallflowers but powerful speakers who like getting their own way: teachers, talk-show hosts, politicians and facetious shop assistants.”

Of course, what do I know, but my theory is that people use IL because they think it sounds cool, or they unconsciously parrot it because people they consider cool talk that way.

spicoli-fast-times-ridgemont-high-surf-no-diceI ran across a couple of Brit sites (the Guardian and BBC) that claim the trend started in Australia. One theory is that it became the cool-speak of the Australian surf sub culture and migrated to California where it morphed into Valley Girl Speak and then spread via the media via Moon Zappa and Clueless. This theory resonates with me. I remember West Ashley surfers I hung with in the early ’70’s affecting this whiny faux-Californian cool-speak.

Anyway, it seems that every generation develops verbal ticks, the “you-knows” of my youth morphing into “likes” and now the interrogative lilt. Is “uptalk” here to stay or will it give way to some new, even more irritating affectation?

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