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Down With Uptalk

I owe you all a big apology.

Because when I was a kid? Growing up in the San Fernando Valley? We talked in this totally weird way and all? And, like, it spread.

More egregious than our senseless devotion to Vans slip-ons, more deplorable than our establishment of the Church of Mall, more reprehensible than our role in launching Moon Unit Zappa’s “musical” career — we Valley Girls of the 1980s injected a hideous habit into the nation’s lexicon.

It’s the tendency to make every declarative sentence, every piddling phrase, sound like a question.

And it’s only now that our kids are doing it that we can fully appreciate how utterly, vexingly brain-piercing it is.

So, like, someone’s talking to you? And it’s not like they’re trying to sound moronic? But they can’t really help it because they’re caught in a sing-songy loop? From which escape … is, like … not likely?

Linguistic experts call these quips “high-rise terminals” for their upward intonation. But James Gorman, a journalism teacher at NYU, coined the term “uptalk” in 1993 after noticing his students doing it.

The verbal tic is associated with youth, but has been documented in high-profile adults from NPR’s Terri Gross to President George Bush. And though its origin has been traced to Southern Californa, it’s now common on the East Coast, and in Canada and Australia.

England, needless to say, is terrified.

While I confess to being more from the “yucky, make it stop” school of linguistic analysis, there are folks who actually try to figure out why such trends take hold. Some say kids haven’t yet mastered the art of conversation and feel the need to check in with their audience at the end of each sentence; it’s like saying, “Are you still listening?”

A fifth-grade teacher I know believes her students do it to buy time, to pause and collect their thoughts before proceeding with their story. But in a world where confidence is revered, uptalk can reflect negatively on a speaker’s character.

“It says they’re unable to take a stand, to make a definitive statement,” says a friend of mine, whose brother-in-law is prone to it. It’s also a passive-aggressive way of skirting censure, she says, as in, “We can’t make it over to see you because we have this fancy party to go to?”

“You can’t argue with a question,” she points out … “even if it isn’t really a question.”

A buddy of mine, a self-described linguistics geek, says the phenomenon’s both natural and harmless. People use uptalk simply to identify with a cultural group: the cool kids at school, the surfer crowd in their community, the young folks in the office, etc.

We pass through different culture groups as we age, he says, and most people are able to “shift conversational registers” according to whom they are addressing. So your kids are no more likely to carry uptalk with them into the job market than they are to drag their favorite childhood blankie along.

Just to be safe, though, I recommend spending this summer breaking your kids of the habit. I know a second-grade teacher who reads to her students using uptalk so they can hear how absurd it sounds. My cousin simply asks her thoroughly exasperated daughter, “Was that a question? And if so, how do you expect me to answer it?”

My own parents — in an effort to ensure that when they took the girl out of the Valley, they could also shake the Valley out of the girl — simply mocked me by saying, “Uh-huhhhhh?” every time I paused to take a breath.

It may have been harsh, but I’m here to tell you it works. There’s no question in my mind.

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Published inColumnsParenting
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