The New York Times today has a fascinating article about how young women often act as society’s trendsetters in vocal patterns that are later adopted by the population at large. Two such patterns: uptalk and vocal fry — both which have been scoffed at here on Ricochet.
Uptalk, or “high-rising terminal”, is a linguistic pattern whereby declarative sentences (those that end in periods) are instead spoken with a questioning intonation (the speaker switches out the period for a question mark).
Starting in America with the Valley Girls of the 1980s (after immigrating from Australia, evidently), uptalk became common among young women across the country by the 1990s.
In the past 20 years, uptalk has traveled “up the age range and across the gender boundary,” said David Crystal, a longtime professor of linguistics who teaches at Bangor University in Wales. “I’ve heard grandfathers and grandmothers use it,” he said. “I occasionally use it myself.”
Even an American president has been known to uptalk. “George W. Bush used to do it from time to time,” said Dr. Liberman, “and nobody ever said, ‘Oh, that G.W.B. is so insecure, just like a young girl.’ ”
In the podcast that accompanies the NY Times article, linguistics Professor David Crystal discusses how uptalk functions in rather sophisticated ways in conversation. It can be used to ensure that the fellow converser is following along in conversation by forcing him to acknowledge that he’s tracking (with a “right” or “uh-huh”, for example) after every sentence or two. Alternatively, uptalk can be employed for efficiency’s sake to condense a declarative sentence and a question into one. For example, if you were to ask me where I grew up, I could respond, “Aptos, California. Do you know where that is?” Or I could respond, “Aptos, California?” to gauge whether more explanation was necessary depending on whether my uptalk produced a confused look in your eyes, or a firm nod to indicate that you know that Aptos is a great coastal town in Santa Cruz County about 90 miles south of San Francisco.
Vocal fry, or creaky voice, similarly serves a number of conversational functions, according to linguists.
Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, called it a natural result of women’s lowering their voices to sound more authoritative.
It can also be used to communicate disinterest, something teenage girls are notoriously fond of doing.
“It’s a mode of vibration that happens when the vocal cords are relatively lax, when sublevel pressure is low,” said Dr. Liberman. “So maybe some people use it when they’re relaxed and even bored, not especially aroused or invested in what they’re saying.”
Ever since I saw a post over on Ann Althouse’s blog about how stupid and obnoxious women who employ vocal fry sound, I’ve been terribly self conscious about my own abuse of this vocal pattern. And I have to confess, I find myself slipping into creaky voice mode quite a lot, especially in phone conversations with family members. But I take mild solace in this:
“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”
The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.
That’s right. Using speech patterns which some deride as sounding irritating, I’m building relationships in an innovative way? Or something like that.