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I have been wondering about the rising pitch used in almost every sentence, by especially young Americans.

  1. What is the purpose/intention of rising pitch except in questions?
  2. Is it friendly and polite, or condescending?
  3. Is it proper to be used in presentation and teaching and other professional occasions?

For example: In this video, starting around 0:40, when Amy Chua introduced herself.

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Are you referring to the (annoying!) practice of ending nearly every sentence with "you know?" and turning it from a statement to an implied question, or to something else? As far as I'm aware, the "you know?" tic became common in the mid to late 80s, and was initially associated with the "Valley Girl" subculture (of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, where most American movie and television studios are located); it spread from there like cholera in the water supply. –  MT_Head Jun 21 '11 at 17:41
    
Not just "you know", but most sentences that I usually don't end with rising pitch. –  Tim Jun 21 '11 at 17:45
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It's called the rising terminal. Juveniles and adolescents do it all the time here as well. –  Thursagen Jun 27 '11 at 8:02
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5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

What you're talking about is known to linguists as the High rising terminal (HRT), and referred to informally as uptalk. This is a relatively recent phenomenon in spoken American English, and its origins are unclear. What is clear is that it doesn't signal a question, and is perceived by many people to be sub-standard and irritating. For that reason you should avoid it if possible in formal settings.

For more information, here is a very long and informative Language Log post about HRT, including a variety of links to other sources. I quote a few paragraphs from near the end which elaborates somewhat on the possible intent and usage of HRT:

As I understand it, uptalk is often (intended and understood) as an invitation for the interlocutor at least to signal attention and perhaps also to assent.

The key thing is that "uptalk" is not a signaling a question, in the literal sense of a request for information about the truth of the proposition being presented; nor does it (usually) mean that someone with low self-confidence is making a plea for reassurance. Rather, the studies suggest that it's usually someone who feels in control of the interaction and is inviting a response, as evidence that the interlocutor is going along.

But there are quite a few reasons for final rises in (most forms of) English: the intitial if-clause of a conditional or the first option of an exclusive disjunction is often rising; lists may be presented with rises on their non-final members; and of course yes-no questions are stereotypically performed with final rises.

Some dialects apparently use final rises as the default option, or at least much more often than speakers of other dialects expect. This is apparently true of Belfast English, for example -- and something similar has apparently been happening with the world-wide spread of uptalk over the past couple of decades, at least in the sense that some people have come to use final rises much more often. It's possible that the thin edge of the uptalk wedge, so to speak, has been the "are you with me?" rise. Pretty much all English speakers use this sometimes, or at least can do so if they choose to. But if someone chooses to do this almost all the time, then its force fades with repetition, and perhaps in some cases becomes almost totally bleached out.

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Avoid if possible in all settings. –  Andrew Jun 21 '11 at 17:50
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@Andrew, there's plenty of social groups where some degree of HRT is normal and expected. No need to avoid it there. –  JSBձոգչ Jun 21 '11 at 17:50
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@Tim -- I would strongly encourage you not to pick it up on purpose. Maybe there are places where it wouldn't be a problem, but there are others where it would. That's like saying "should I pick up bad grammar?" You can be nice and no uptalker is going to care that you don't uptalk -- but if you become an uptalker you're going to drive other people (like me) absolutely crazy :) –  Andrew Jun 21 '11 at 18:00
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@jsbangs I've found another Language Log post that has a lot of recorded examples of uptalk, analyzed: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=586 ... and one more languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=863 that's got links to all the other posts about uptalk at the bottom. –  aedia λ Jun 21 '11 at 18:22
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@jsbangs Okay, maybe not all the other posts about uptalk. Plenty more good ones: Elementary-school uptalk, Annals of Uptalk: The Python Wrestler, both with recordings & discussing what uptalk means, social implications... –  aedia λ Jun 21 '11 at 18:32
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I suspect that what you're describing is a phenomenon my wife and I refer to as up-talking. I don't know what causes someone to be an up-talker, but I think it's borderline on being a speech impediment.

Some young people seem to use this when they are uncertain, but most grow out of it.

There are no circumstances where this is 'beneficial' or 'correct' to use.

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It really depends on the context. It could be used to indicate the end of a thought in a long run-on sentence, especially if the speaker is excited.

I went down to the store^^ and on my way there^^ I found ten bucks on the ground!

In an argument, it can indicate frustration.

I keep on telling you^^ but you don't seem to hear me^^ so I've had enough.

It should definitely not be used in a formal or professional context where you want your words to be taken seriously. It can make you sound air-headed and it can make your words sound unplanned.

The way I see it, a rise in pitch is a informal verbal comma. A lot of informal writing is littered with unnecessary commas, just as informal speech is littered with such upward inflections.

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Thanks! From your examples in life, do you mean rising pitch is used between sub-sentences (separated by comma or conj. such as and and but) and between clauses, but not at the end of a sentence? –  Tim Jun 21 '11 at 17:50
    
Yeah, the ^^ indicates the end of the rise in pitch in my examples. I can't think of an example where it would be used in the middle of a clause, nor at the end of a sentence without indicating a question. –  hughes Jun 21 '11 at 17:55
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According to Mark Liberman at Language Log, uptalk is not really a habit of youth or insecurity. On the contrary, it's used most often to “assert dominance and control” over a conversation.

For example, in four business meetings, two chaired by women and two by men, the chairs used rise tones almost three times more often than the other participants did (329 times vs. 112 times). In conversations between academic supervisors and their supervisees, the supervisors used rise tones almost seven times more often than the supervisees (765 times vs. 117 times).

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JSBձոգչ's answer also addresses this – in fact, the post he cites links to this one. I think the two Language Log posts together do an excellent job of analyzing this kind of speech. –  Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 6:19
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I have experienced this rising pitch among young American teachers (though I haven't really noticed it elsewhere). They refer to it as "up-speak."

Among them, I've been told that such a tone is used to convey friendliness and a positive tone.

Furthermore, it is used to keep the listener's interest, to clue them in to important keywords, or at the end of a phrase to show that the sentence is not yet over.

The following are some examples in which a teacher might use this:

When I say go^^, I want you to quickly and quietly^^, line up at the back of the room^^, and wait for me to tell you to go.

When I read^^, I constantly ask questions^^ and make predictions^^ about the story^^, so that I'm actively interacting with the text instead of just identifying words.

I see Jonah^^ working quietly on his project^^. Mary^^ is also working quietly on her project^^. John^^, I need to see you working quietly as well.

This site provides some additional explanation and examples: Statement Rising Pitch Boundaries

I can definitely see this rising pitch conveying weakness or lack of authority in situations which require sternness, but it can also be used to further contrast a general positive tone with instances that require sternness (and would therefore not use up-speak, especially to end the sentence).

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There's a distinct difference between the increased emphasis in your examples and the rising tone in the OP. In your examples, the words you've set off with "^^" could be read as if italicized. The rising tone in question, as I understand it, is read as if the "^^" were a "?" tonally. They're both rising tones, but they're not the same rising tones. –  chaosys Jun 21 '11 at 20:16
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Yes, the "are you listening" pitch is approximately a whole step; the "frustrated" pitch shift is a fourth or fifth; the "uptalk" pitchshift is often nearly an octave. –  Joe McMahon Jun 21 '11 at 22:40
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