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The Communicative Upshot of Uptalk

The manner of speaking that has come to be called ‘uptalk’, in which declarative sentences and clauses are rendered with interrogative instead of declarative intonation, has spread from its origin in the speech of adolescent girls to children of all ages and both sexes; and even to male young adults. As a linguistic phenomenon with social consequences, uptalk has also become part of a speech strategy that betrays largely unconscious motives which are worthy of note.

As has been detailed in earlier posts, the main thrust of uptalk is clearly APOTROPAIC, by which is meant a strategy employed in order to forestall danger, in this case the danger of possible censure or criticism as a result of what is being said. Asserting something with the normal declarative intonation runs the risk of being disapproved or criticized, whereas phrasing a non-question with interrogative intonation takes the assertory edge off whatever is being said, thereby softening the utterance and removing or attenuating the risk of censure for the content of the utterance.

A subsidiary motivation for uptalk is the communicative desirability on the part of the utterer for reinforcement that the utterance is being understood and (at least) provisionally agreed with on the part of the utterer’s adressee(s). The appropriate gloss of uptalk in this aspect is something like ‘Do you follow me?’ or ‘Do you know what I’m saying?’, phrases which are in actual use in speech without the presence of uptalk as tags to assertions in normative English anyway.

The semeiotic upshot of a fundamentally apotropaic speech strategy abuts in conceptions of the self and the other in their communicative interrelations as part of social interaction. When one has to be careful to mask  assertions as questions for fear of potential censure in order to get along socially with others, this attitude clearly betrays a fundamental lack of confidence in the society’s members’ ability to weigh assertions on their merits instead of automatically reacting with some measure of bias or animus to so much as the mere articulation of linguistic content that is not implicitly unquestionable.

The urge to promote a society speciously free of communicative risk––specifically, THE RISK OF BEING (PROVEN) WRONG––is at bottom the motivation of uptalk. Where it might have been understandable as a speech strategy of adolescent girls, evidently involving matters of gender and power, its latter-day spread to groups beyond its original  locus can only be assessed as a peculiar––and baneful––failure of thought.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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