What happened to the simple declarative sentence? This is a legitimate question and therefore, it is appropriate and acceptable for my voice to rise at the end of this utterance. However, the tendency to make a question out of a sentence that isn’t a question is not acceptable. This practice is called “upspeak” or alternatively “uptalk” or “high rising terminal”. No matter what you call it, it sounds as if you are always asking a question, and never making a statement. In present day communication, “upspeak” is taking on a life of its own!
There are certain speakers such as Australians, New Zealanders and the British who have spoken with a high rising terminal for centuries and it is a legitimate intonation pattern in their daily oral communication. However, in the United States, “upspeak” is not a habitual pattern that is associated with Standard American English. The question is, where did this speech pattern come from?
Linguists have been studying this evolving pattern and there are many thoughts on how “upspeak” began. These include the influence of immigrants who speak with an upward inflection, watching television programs from countries where these patterns are prevalent, and of course, the infamous Valley Girl from California, who was featured in the movie “Clueless” many years ago. Nobody can pin down the exact geographical origin of “upspeak” but what is for certain is that it is becoming a prevalent rhetorical pattern.
In trying to analyze this voice pattern and understand the possible conversational benefits of “upspeak”, a number of theories have been proposed. It is suggested that “upspeak” is a way of checking in with your listener to make sure that they are with you; that they comprehend what you are saying to them. It is also thought that people who use “upspeak” adopt this style so that they will not be interrupted when telling a story or relating an event. Ending their utterance with a questioning intonation implies that there is more to come. Finally, it is thought that using “upspeak” establishes a tentative tone so that if your statement is met with criticism or disapproval, you can quickly backtrack and retract your statement without sounding like you are completely changing your opinion, as you would have to do if you had made a definite declarative statement.
While “upspeak” has traditionally been noticed in the speech patterns of teenage girls, it has now become a conversational pattern that extends equally across gender, age, and socioeconomic levels. It seems that nobody is immune to this trend, which has become as contagious as the common cold. Since so many people use this pattern of speech, it is important to understand the repercussions of speaking in an upward questioning style.
In addition to being incredibly annoying and distracting, there are implications of “upspeak” of which the speaker is completely unaware. It makes you sound very tentative and unsure of what you are saying; it sounds as if you are asking for approval. It is a conversational style that distracts from the message and reduces both the impact of your utterance and your credibility. Part of the problem, though, is that most people are unaware that they are speaking in this style unless somebody points it out to them. Awareness is definitely the first step in eradicating this undesirable way of speaking but then what?
Speech habits can only be changed when your ear is trained to detect how you are speaking. The use of a recording of your speech, and the help of a listener, who can point out when you are using “upspeak” and provide you with immediate feedback can help modify this habit. Listening for and noticing the use of this questioning pattern in others is also useful because you will begin to notice how annoying and ineffective it is when speaking. Finally, to avoid having other people wonder, are they asking me or telling me, make “upspeak” a vocal fad of the past!