Uptalk: power and prejudice
From time to time the media pick up on instances of English language use which do not carry over entirely happily from one variety to another. One of the most well-known of these must be the feature – variously known by such labels as ‘high rising terminal’ (HRT), ‘Australian question intonation’ (AQI), or ‘uptalk’ – which sees an upward inflection being introduced to utterances that are not actually questions. Long unremarkable in Australia, and increasingly unremarkable elsewhere in the English-speaking world, especially among younger speakers, this feature nevertheless annoys a lot of people who do not use it themselves. A recent online discussion of this phenomenon in the United States can be found here.
The latest in a catalogue of complaints recorded about uptalk has come as a result of a survey of business leaders carried out by Pearson, the findings of which were reported in the Daily Mail and other British newspapers in January this year. Under the headline ‘Want a promotion? Don’t speak like an AUSSIE [i.e. an Australian]’, the Mail explains that Pearson surveyed 700 men and women in managerial roles, and more than half said that the trait was a clear indicator of insecurity and would hinder employment prospects. Taking this up the following day, the Guardian newspaper featured a light-hearted debate between an Australian, Alex McClintock, and an Englishwoman, Rae Earl. Among many partisan claims by McClintock was that ‘far from indicating insecurity, some studies suggest that the AQI is often used by powerful people when speaking to their subordinates (thereby explaining why Australians use it when talking to Britons)’. Earl countered with equal spirit, observing that uptalk ‘makes tiny admissions of doubt sound like Pacific-sized adolescent insecurities’.
As well as provoking popular discussion, this one linguistic feature has a long and distinguished history of sociolinguistic analysis. But we might remark here on two very fundamental issues that touch on the everyday world. Firstly, it is clear that how we speak leads others to judge us: as G. B. Shaw wrote in his Preface to Pygmalion, ‘It is impossible for an Englishman [for this, probably read ‘any speaker’] to open his mouth without making some other Englishman [i.e. speaker] hate or despise him’. People do not generally hold back from being judgemental about the speech of others, even though they might be careful not to voice prejudices based on, for example, gender, race, or religion. Secondly, the media never tire of discussing English. Those of us who teach or research the language can expect a ready audience for what we have to say, making it essential that we ensure our facts are correct and our opinions objective.