The XX Factor

In Defense of Upspeak

Since my first appearance on the DoubleX Gabfest podcast back in 2009, listeners have complained about my incessant “upspeak.” Otherwise known as the high-rising terminal declarative, upspeak or uptalk is raising your tone at the end of a sentence, which is grating to some ears. At first I tried to rid myself of upspeak, thinking that it undermined my authority if listeners thought that my rising tones made my statements sound uncertain or in any way tentative. But I liked the way I spoke, and I suspected, even then, that the reason people were irked by the upspeak was because they associated it with young women, and they had a subconscious prejudice against the Cher Horowitzes of the world. (As if!)

My instincts about upspeak were vindicated by an article in today’s New York Times, about how young women are linguistic trendsetters. There’s an accompanying podcast, in which the Welsh linguist David Crystal explains that women are more ready to take on vocal novelty, and that others follow suit. Take upspeak as an example. The trend was mentioned in the Times as far back as the early ‘90s. By the aughts, it was a pretty pervasive speech pattern—even George W. Bush is an upspeaker—and yet, as the Times points out, no one ever said Bush sounded insecure or girly. In fact, upspeak can even be mildly threatening:

Several studies have shown that uptalk can be used for any number of purposes, even to dominate a listener. In 1991, Cynthia McLemore, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that senior members of a Texas sorority used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks. (“We have a rush event this Thursday? And everyone needs to be there?”)

So remember, the next time you’re listening to me on the podcast and the end of my sentences go up, don’t summarily dismiss the content of my speech. I’m just trying to dominate you like an aggressive Delta Gamma who wants you to make those Jell-o shots, pronto.