10 Feb 2016

Uptalk? The rising intonation that makes statements sound like questions?

From Nine To Noon, 9:42 am on 10 February 2016

Parodied by actors, chastised by foreigners, and celebrated by Kiwis; a new book is helping explain the phenomenon that is "uptalk", the rising intonation which makes statements sounds like questions.

Lyn of Tawa

Lyn of Tawa - the iconic New Zealand character - often used uptalk. Photo: Youtube

Associate Professor Paul Warren of the School of Linguistics at Victoria University has written Uptalk, which is being described as the first comprehensive analysis of the speech phenomenon.

Prof Warren told Nine to Noon uptalk was common in New Zealand and Australia, but also a number of other English speaking countries, including Canada and the United States.

He said there was more evidence of the language trait in young women, but it was increasingly being carried on by speakers as they got older, and was also used by men.

While there was little differentiation in the use of uptalk across classes in New Zealand, the situation was different for social stratifications across the ditch.

"The lower working class were using it more than the upper working class, and they were using it more than the middle class - except for the men.

"For the men there was an avoidance by the lower working class - it was almost as though they knew that this was something associated with their group and they wanted to avoid it."

Prof Warren said the purpose of uptalk was seen differently by those using it - the 'in' group - than by those hearing it - the 'out' group.

"The uptalkers, the 'in' group, they're using it largely to keep communication channel open, they're trying to invite the listener into the conversation.

"The 'out' group perceive it differently... they hear it as questioning the validity of what the speaker is saying and so they then interpret that as showing lack of security, lack of confidence in what you're saying and so that they reflects badly on the speaker."

Prof Warren said early studies relating to uptalk traced the speech habit to New Zealand and Australia in the 1960s, but it had also been noted in research in Canada and the United States, and more recently in the UK.

It was difficult to determine if the phenomenon developed in this part of the world and spread, or had developed independently in different countries, he said.

The earliest documentation described the trait as an 'interview tune' during a study in Sydney.

Listen to Paul Warren talk with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon: