Upspeak – the unstoppable rise of rising intonation.

You may have noticed that some English speakers use a rising tone on a statement. It almost sounds like a question?

This is commonly known as ‘upspeak’ or ‘uptalk’, and it’s controversial. Growing in popularity since the invasion of Australian and American TV in the 80s and 90s, it has become a natural part of the way many people of all ages speak, particularly younger speakers. But some people hate it, claiming not only that it’s annoying, but that it hurts your career – can an intonation pattern hold such power? Let’s get to the bottom of this… ↗phenomenon.

What does upspeak sound like?

Quite simply, it is a rising intonation pattern on a statement. Have a listen (firstly with upspeak, secondly without).

I don’t like coffee.
The weather’s really horrible today.
I can’t come because my car’s in the garage.

What does it mean?

Upspeak may change the way a listener perceives the speaker’s attitude – it can sound more open, a sort of “what do you think about my statement?”. It could show insecurity or implication – “I’m not really making this statement fully.” This has even led to the suggestion that it’s postmodern.

But its meaning may have no difference from falling intonation ↘ – a growing number of speakers use upspeak in their speech where previously a falling tone would have been used – to them, the meaning is the same. Let’s try it – here’s a statement firstly in upspeak and secondly with falling intonation, what do you feel to be the difference?

We’re going to Spain on holiday, so I can’t wait for school to end.

Who uses it?

Younger English speakers use upspeak more, but it has certainly spread fast. You will hear upspeak among every age group of English speakers in the UK, but none of these groups use upspeak all the time on statements. And very few of these groups were using it 30 years ago, so it’s safe to say that you could hear upspeak on just about anyone’s lips*.

*Except me, I would never use upspeak, don’t even go there!

Why do some people hate it?

Various articles in the news have suggested that upspeak could hinder your job prospects, but with different results for men and women. Older speakers may find it annoying – here’s the English actor Stephen Fry explaining why he hates it (he calls it AQI – Australian Question Intonation):

Whilst there are always those who are resistant to change in language and accents, they are a minority, and history shows that language is not controlled in this way. Upspeak’s rise won’t be stopped by Stephen Fry (he knows it too) – many younger speakers do not share the view that it is annoying.

Where’s it from?

Its roots are found in Irish and Northern accents of English centuries ago, but its mass usage in speakers in Britain from the 1990s onwards probably comes from the hugely popular Australian and American television shows such as ‘Neighbours’, ‘Home and Away’ and most famously ‘Friends’. Listen to this sentence by Chandler – two of the units of speech use upspeak:

MONICA: Who’s little ball of paper is this?
CHANDLER: Oh, that would be mine, see I wrote a note to myself and then I realised I didn’t need the note so I balled it up and now I wish I was dead.

Upspeak in Written English.

Some representations of upspeak put a question mark after the statement to indicate rising intonation, but this isn’t practical unless you are comparing intonation. It isn’t really possible to show whether the speaker uses uptalk in written English, except with the use of intonation arrows.

Test your Upspeak.

Which 2 of the following sentences contain Upspeak?

i) My pronunciation’s really improving.
ii) There are some dodgy looking guys over there.
iii) I’ve never heard of him.
iv) This is the nicest gift I’ve ever had.

Sentences ii) and iii) are said with upspeak here. Sentences i) and iv) are said with falling intonation.