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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 June 2005, 18:16 GMT 19:16 UK
'Uptalk' becoming standard speech
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

So over here too ... television has spread the uptalking habit
'Uptalk' - the pattern of speech used by young people where every sentence ends on a rising note - is fast entering the mainstream, says a New York professor.

Once the preserve of teenage girls, this habit of using "rising inflexions" to mark the end of every phrase, is now crossing into standard adult speech, says language expert, Professor Yvonne Pratt-Johnson.

And in particular, she says it is being used by white Americans, in a way that is becoming distinctively different from black Americans, whom she says are much less likely to use uptalk.

The use of uptalk has been described as making every statement sound like it is asking a question - with the pitch of the voice rising at the end of each sentence.

'Valley girl talk'

Professor Pratt-Johnson, who is to deliver a lecture on uptalk at an international language conference in Cardiff next month, says it is thought to have originated in California in the 1980s - where it was known as "valley girl talk".

But Professor Pratt-Johnson, from St John's University in New York City, says this way of talking has now spread so widely that it has moved beyond being a trend - and has been adopted as standard speech by the middle aged and middle class.

And men, as well as teenage girls in shopping malls, are increasingly likely to use it.

"Once uptalk would never have been used by an authority figure, because it would have signified weakness and tentativeness. But now it's everywhere," she says.

As examples, she says police officers are using it to describe crime details on television - and she has recorded President Bush using uptalk during his election campaign.

And among students, she says it has become rife, particularly if they are being defensive or want to say something that might be unpopular. So they might preface a comment by saying "You might have an issue with this? But I think that ..."

Chat shows

It is also moving to written English, she says, having received e-mails from students that have been written in uptalk. "I couldn't be in school today? I had a doctor's appointment?"

Television and films are spreading this mode of speech, she says, with chat shows that seem to be entirely expressed in exchanges of uptalk.

The exception to this growth of uptalk, she says, has been black Americans, who have been reluctant to adopt this speech pattern - not least, she believes, because it is becoming identified as being characteristically white.

In her research, she says, she came across a black professor who used uptalk while in the company of white colleagues, but did not use it among black friends and family.

And she is examining the question of whether this way of talking, like an accent or a dialect, is becoming used as an expression of identity by a social or cultural group - as a kind of street talk for the white middle classes.

Uptalking has already arrived in Britain - particularly among the young - although this has been claimed as owing more to Australian soap operas than to the Californian valley girls.

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