Accent on Santa Skivvies

A late entry in the gay Santa category, Dean Allemang at the Santa Skivvies run for charity:

(Dean is wearing only his Santa cap, sunglasses, his watch, the armband for the run, his nipple ring, his ring, his excellent striped briefs, and (not pictured here) socks and running shoes.)

On Santa runs, see my posting on gay Santas; in general, there’s no requirement that participants in these events be gay, but if you get Dean, you get gay (and a profound, and endearing, lack of modesty; unsurprisingly, Dean did the No Pants! BART Ride on Sunday).

Meanwhile, Dean commented on my “Do Californians have an accent?” posting, asking about a sentence-final rise in pitch that he’s been hearing here in California, referring to the feature as an “accent”. This will take some sorting out.

(Dean is a computer scientist, Wikipedia page here; an old friend; once a boyfriend; and the person who introduced me to shapenote singing some years ago.)

Dean’s comment:

Since I have started working the sustainability area [having to do with sustainable development -- AMZ], I have noticed that many people who work in this crowd have a funny accent – a sort of “lilt” at the end of every sentence, that makes it sound like a question. I personally find it annoying; to my ear, it sounds as if the speaker is very unsure of themselves, and is constantly asking for validation of what they are saying. It is very different from an Irish lilt – much more question-like. I had a call with two middle-managers at FairTrade USA, both of whom had this accent, making it hard for me to remember I wasn’t on the call with the sustainability manager from Levi’s, who has the same accent.

I asked a sustainability consultant (who quite emphatically does *not* have this accent; I think he avoids it intentionally, because it offends him, too) about this. Is there a “sustainability community” accent? I had never heard it before I started this job.

He claims it is one of the California accents, but I have lived here five years and never heard anyone with this accent, until I started hanging out with the ex-hippies of the sustainable business crowd. The Mammoth [that would be me – AMZ] has been in California a lot longer than I have. Is this some sort of Berkeley accent? Or is there such a thing as an accent that goes along the lines of professional circles?

Crucial fact: Dean is talking about a single phonological feature here, which I’ll temporarily call final rise, but he’s calling it an accent — probably because he has no ready vocabulary for talking about single features, so he uses what’s available. Linguists talking about geographic and social variation use the term accent to refer to a *suite* of phonological features characteristic of some set of speakers, so that you can get entire books (like Eva Sivertsen’s 1960 volume Cockney Phonology) devoted to the description of a particular accent.


(1) In this sense, everyone has an accent; everyone has a set of phonological features that they share with others and that set them off from still others. Some accents are more highly valued than others — even viewed as normative — in certain contexts, but there’s no such thing as being literally featureless.

(2) Every accent is variable, both across speakers and within the practice of individual speakers. Very rarely is a particular feature (vs. alternative features) used all of the time by all speakers in a community.

(3) An accent is part of a larger suite of features (taking in lexical choices, morphological forms, and syntactic constructions, in addition to segmental and prosodic phonological features), which linguists sometimes use the neutral technical term variety (or lect) for, and sometimes the technical term dialect (while understanding that the folk use of this term often doesn’t align well with the linguists’ usage).

(4) Each of these features is “just stuff”, with no *intrinsic* semantics or social meaning; a feature picks up “meaning” (of whatever sort) from the way it’s used in particular communities of practice, and this can vary almost without limit. (Let’s grant that particular features, like final rise or high pitch range, can have natural associations with meanings of various sorts — final rise with questioning or uncertainty, high pitch range with femininity or emotional excitement –but recognize that these associations can be overridden by conventional associations of features to semantics or social meanings.)

(5) Potential multiplicity of features: What we might at first think of as a single feature (like final rise) can turn out, on closer examination, to be several empirically distinguishable features. Dean suggests just this in his comment: the final rise of Irish English doesn’t sound the same to him as the California rise, and that seems to be correct; indeed, it seems likely that both are phonetically distinct from the rising terminal intonation of English yes-no questions (Are you going?)

On Language Log, Mark Liberman has devoted a huge amount of space and time, over at least seven years, to distinguishing “uptalk” (the “accent” Dean is talking about) from the final rise of Urban North British (taking in Irish as well, and perhaps Irish-derived accents of the Antipodes) and the high rising terminal accent of yes-no questions. See in particular this posting, which has links to a bunch of earlier postings; follow-ups here and here.

(6) The folk construction of features relies heavily on social stereotypes — uptalk is associated in folk linguistics with young, female, and especially Southern California speakers, and with social insecurity. These folk associations are imperfect at best, and are mostly just factually wrong.

(7) In the folk understanding of features, the hearer’s experience trumps the speaker’s intentions: understandably, even necessarily, we interpret features acording to our own experience and our own linguistic systems, even if this is at variance with the facts of the matter. English speakers who are not attuned to the uses of uptalk will hear final rise as the high rising terminal intonation of yes-no questions and uncertain assertions, and so will systematically misunderstand speakers’ intentions. (The effect is entirely familiar from data on listener’s interpretation of segmental phonology; we’re all strongly biased towards hearing things in terms of our own phonological systems, even when the speakers we’re hearing have quite different systems.)

From Mark’s 2008 posting on “Uptalk anxiety”:

In her 1991 dissertation, Cynthia McLemore suggested that final rises iconically signal some kind of connection. This might be a connection between ideas, as in non-terminal list items; or it might be a connection between speaker and hearer, as in a question and the answer or a statement and the listeners’ attention. But she pointed out that this kind of reaching out to listeners need not be a sign of insecurity or even politeness. And in her data, taken from a careful study of the role of intonation in a University of Texas sorority, final rises were associated with statements by more senior and more powerful members that required audience attention and action.

Winnie Cheng and Martin Warren found something similar in a 2005 corpus study of English in Hong Kong. In four business meetings, two chaired by women and two by men, the chairs used rising 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 rising tones almost seven times more often than the supervisees (765 times vs. 117 times). Cheng and Warren cite David Brazil’s idea that what he called “rise tones” can be used to “assert dominance and control” by holding the floor, by exerting pressure on the hearer to respond, or by reminding the hearer(s) of common ground.

But Taylor Mali’s poetic screed simultaneously illustrates and subverts a deeply embedded stereotype that final rises are young, insecure, and feminine. Thus Kate Zernike, “Postfeminism and Other Fairy Tales“, NYT 3/16/2008 NYT 3/16/2008, quotes from Katha Pollitt’s essay in the book Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary:

[T]he hysterical insults flung at Hillary Clinton are just a franker, crazier version of the everyday insults — shrill, strident, angry, ranting, unattractive — that are flung at any vaguely liberal mildly feminist woman who shows a bit of spirit and independence, who puts herself out in the public realm, who doesn’t fumble and look up coyly from underneath her hair and give her declarative sentences the cadence of a question.

This view of final rises was popularized among feminists by Robin Lakoff’s 1975 monograph Language and Women’s Place, where she wrote

There is a peculiar sentence intonation pattern, found in English as far as I know only among women, which has the form of a declarative answer to a question, and is used as such, but has the rising inflection typical of a yes-no question… The effect is as though one were seeking confirmation, though at the same time the speaker may be the only one who has the requisite information.

But in fact, final rises are often used by males attempting to assert dominance, as exemplified by Taylor Mali’s poem [sampled in Mark's posting], and documented by Cheng and Warren, and discussed in earlier Language Log posts here (where the uptalker is a very angry former NASA official) and here (where the uptalker is President George W. Bush).

The association of uptalk with insecure women seems [to[ exemplify the complex of selective attention and confirmation bias that Arnold Zwicky has called the "out-group illusion": "… people pay attention selectively to members of groups they don't see themselves as belonging to and so locate phenomena as characteristics of these groups." (See my post "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming" for some further discussion.)

On the other hand, there's evidence — from sources other than [Mark's correspondent's] daughter — that the relative frequency of final rises (and thus their effective meaning) has changed over the past few decades, among younger speakers of both sexes in many parts of the English-speaking world.

And in interpreting this historical change, it’s also important to note that regional varieties of English have long-established differences in the relative frequency — and also in the conventional interpretation — of various phrasal melodies. Thus Esther Grabe, Greg Kochanski and John Coleman, “The Intonation of Native Accent Varieties in the British Isles: Potential for Miscommunication?” (from Katarzyna Dziubalska-Kolaczyk and Joanna Przedlacka (eds.), English pronunciation models: a changing scene, 2005) reproduces this “tadpole diagram” of the traditional distinction between the intonation of emphatic statements in the south of English and in Ulster …

As for Dean and the people he comes into contact with in his tech business in the Bay Area, I’m surprised that he hasn’t heard more final rises — they’re common enough that some non-linguists have seen them as characteristic of “the California accent” — but that’s probaby just a tribute to the fact that final rises, though very common in the area, are socially distributed in very complex ways.


One Response to “Accent on Santa Skivvies”

  1. This year’s Santa skivvies | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] On the 2012 run, here and here. […]

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