ASA Lay Language Papers
166th Acoustical Society of America Meeting

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Do We All Speak Like Valley Girls? Uptalk in Southern Californian English

Amanda Ritchart – aritchart@ucsd.edu
University of California, San Diego
Department of Linguistics
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093

Amalia Arvaniti – a.arvaniti@kent.ac.uk
University of Kent
English Language & Linguistics
Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NF
United Kingdom

Popular version of paper 4pSCa2
Presented Thursday afternoon, December 5, 2013
166th ASA Meeting, San Francisco

A common characteristic of speech in Southern Californian English is the use of uptalk - the use of rising pitch - at the end of utterances. For example, when the barista at a coffee shop asks a Southern Californian speaker for his or her name, you might hear the name as almost a response to a question (e.g., Mike?, Isabelle?), even though we know that this person is not actually questioning his or her name.

The use of uptalk is certainly more than just stereotypical "Valley Girl speak" in Southern California (henceforth SoCal). In fact, uptalk serves several purposes in the speech of SoCal speakers, and it is used by both men and women, at least those of young age, though there are also gender differences in the use of uptalk. Our study investigated the uses of uptalk and the associated gender differences.

To investigate the use of uptalk, 23 native speakers of SoCal English (12 female; 11 male), all undergraduates at the University of California, San Diego, were recorded during several speech tasks. These speakers came from different counties within SoCal (Los Angeles - 8; Orange - 6; San Diego - 7; Riverside - 2) and self-identified as belonging to three different ethnic groups: Asian (12), Hispanic (6), and White (5). Eight of these speakers also reported being bilingual. Each speaker also self-identified their socioeconomic status using the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status. These ratings were then grouped into three different socioeconomic status classes: Lower (4), Middle (13), and Upper (6). While most of these social variables did not necessarily reflect differences in the use of uptalk, they certainly represent the diversity of speakers within Southern California.

The results reported here are based on two tasks, the retelling of a popular sitcom scene and a map task (see Anderson, Bader, and Bard, 1991 for a more detailed description of this task). Speakers watched on Netflix a muted clip of either Scrubs or How I Met Your Mother. After reading back a script of the scene, the speakers were asked to describe, in their own words, what happened in the clip. For the map task, speakers were given a map that had a path from a start line to a finish line. Along the way, several familiar landmarks from the area around San Diego were depicted. The experimenter was given a map that had the landmarks, but no path. The goal of the speaker was to guide the experimenter from start to finish along the exact path they had on their map. In order to encourage talking back and forth, the landmarks were slightly different between the two maps. The task ended when the speaker successfully brought the experimenter to the finish line.

Fig. 1a

Fig. #1: Example of a map that was used during the map task.

We were interested in (a) how uptalk is realized and (b) when it is used. To see how uptalk is realized, we examined two variables: the location of the rise and the extent of the rise. The location refers to where the rise starts in an utterance. The extent of rising refers to how much rising occurs in each utterance. For example, a speaker may use a very small rise to indicate a statement or a very large rise to indicate a question.

To see when uptalk is used, we looked for the use of uptalk with four different utterance types: statements, questions, holding the floor, and confirmation requests. For example, when a SoCal speaker says, "Ok so you go around La Jolla Mesa past the green lagoon.", they make a neutral statement.

Fig. 1a

Fig. #2: Example of a simple statement rise at the end of an utterance.

They may also use rising pitch to make a question; e.g., "You know where the Robeks was before?"

Fig. 1a

Fig. #3: Example of a question rise at the end of an utterance.

Holding the floor refers to the situation in which a speaker has not finished their turn and wants to indicate this so that the listener will not interrupt; e.g., "Ok, so go towards Warren."

Fig. 1a

Fig. #4: Example of a floor holding rise at the end of an utterance.

Confirmation request refers to the situation in which a speaker is looking for confirmation about the content at hand, i.e., they want to confirm that their interlocutor has correctly understood them or recognizes what they say. For example, one speaker said, "Go all the way to the right in the middle where it says Canyon Hills?" . This is not a direct question; rather, the speaker rises at the end to indicate that their interlocutor is following; e.g., a different way to achieve the same goal of confirming understanding would be to add, "Are you with me?" or "Are you following?".

Fig. 1a

Fig. #5: Example of a confirmation request rise at the end of an utterance.

For the when of "uptalk", we found:

For the realization of "uptalk", we found:

These results point to the diverse use of uptalk in SoCal English, where uptalk is used in more diverse circumstances than with uptalk in other varieties of English (e.g., Fletcher, Grabe, and Warren, 2005). Uptalk is used for a variety of purposes, but the exact type of rise (how much rising and where the rise begins) is dependent on its purpose. For example, statement and question uptalk have different characteristics: the statement pitch rise is not as large and begins later on in the utterance than the question rise. In other words, we can say that SoCal speakers do not ask questions when they should be making statements: they use similar pitch configurations for both, but the two show subtle differences which allow native SoCal speakers at least to distinguish between questions proper and statements.

Our results also indicate that uptalk use is gendered in SoCal, though it does not quite fit the stereotype that only women use uptalk. Young SoCal speakers use uptalk independently of gender, though young women clearly use it more often than young men. In addition, female speakers show expected characteristics, such as the larger pitch excursion - an effect similar to findings of uptalk in other English dialects, including New Zealand, Australian and London English (Warren, 2005; Ainsworth, 2004; Daly and Warren, 2001; Fletcher, Grabe, and Warren, 2005; Barry, 2007).

Based on these findings, it appears that most young SoCal English speakers use uptalk frequently and in several different situations. Uptalk is no longer just a part of Valley Girl speak.

References:

Ainsworth, H. (2004). Regional Variation in New Zealand English : The Taranaki Sing-song Accent by. Ph.D. thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.

Anderson, A., Bader, M., & Bard, E. (1991). The HCRC map task corpus. Language and Speech, 34(4), 351-366.

Barry, A. S. (2007). The form, function, and distribution of high rising intonation in Southern California and Sourthern British English. Ph.D. thesis, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK.

Daly, N., & Warren, P. (2001). Pitching it differently in New Zealand English : Speaker sex and intonation patterns. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 5(1), 85-96.

Fletcher, J., Grabe, E., & Warren, P. (2005). Prosodic typology: The Phonology of Intonation and Phrasing, chap. Intonaional Variation in Four Dialects of English: the High Rising Tune, pp. 390-409. Oxford University Press.

Warren, P. (2005). Patterns of late rising in New Zealand English: Intonational variation or intonational change?. Language Variation and Change, 17(02), 209-230.

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