Rising pitch

In the Stanford freshman seminar on language in the comics, the topic of rising intonation at the end of intonational units came, with the predictable impression from some (by no means all) of the students that it was associated with asking questions. And then I was pointed to a piece by artist Taylor Mali, “Speak with conviction”, complaining about “invisible quesion marks”. There’s a deep but understandable confusion here.

Background: The meat and potatoes of phonology is the properties of individual segments — consonants and vowels. But beyond this are (at least) two types of properties associated with larger units, starting with syllables and moving up from there: prosodic properties, having to do with pitch, loudness, and length; and vocal qualities like glottalization (“vocal fry”) and falsetto voice.

In my writing about these things, again and again I’ve stressed that these non-segmental properties are “just stuff”, with no intrinsic meaning on their own, though they often have natural associations with certain effects. (In addition, many of these features can be be exploited as contrastive features on specific segments: length in vowels or consonants, glottalization on vowels or consonants, and so on.)

Instead, for the most part these features are associated with social groups and social situations, in a complex way.

In the case of final rises, as far as I know, for all speakers of English it’s associated conventionally with certain types of questions, in particular yes-no questions like Are you my mother? It’s a grammatical feature, like word order.

Phonetically, these final rises are traditionally known as high rising terminals (HRTs), since they start relatively high in pitch and then go higher.

That brings me to the Wikipedia article:

The high rising terminal (HRT), also known as Uptalk, upspeak, rising inflection, or high rising intonation (HRI), is a feature of some accents of English where statements have a rising intonation pattern in the final syllable or syllables of the utterance.

Empirically, Ladd (1996, pg 123) proposes that HRT in American English and Australian English is marked by a high tone (high pitch or high fundamental frequency) beginning on the final accented syllable near the end of the statement (the terminal), and continuing to increase in frequency (up to 40%) to the end of the intonational phrase. New research such as that conducted by Warren (2005) suggests that the actual rise can occur one or more syllables after the last accented syllable of the phrase, and its range is much more variable than previously thought.

… It has been noted in speech heard in areas of Canada, in Cape Town, the Falkland Islands, and in the United States where it is often associated with a particular sociolect that originated among affluent teenage girls in Southern California (see Valleyspeak and Valley girl). Elsewhere in the United States, this intonation is characteristic of the speech heard in those parts of rural North Dakota and Minnesota that through migration have come under the influence of the Norwegian language.

Although it is ridiculed in Britain as “Australian question intonation” (AQI) and blamed on the popularity of Australian soap operas among teenagers, HRT is also a feature of several UK dialects, especially in the mid-Ulster and Belfast variants.

… Although several personalities in the popular media in Australia, Britain, and the United States have negatively portrayed the usage of HRT, claiming that its use is exhibiting a speaker’s insecurities about the statement, more recent evidence (McLemore, 1991; Cheng et al., 2005; Warren, 2005) shows that leaders of the peer group are more likely to use HRT in their declaratives than the junior members of the particular peer group. According to University of Pennsylvania phonologist Mark Liberman, George W. Bush began to use HRT extensively in his speeches as his presidency continued.

This is something of a morass. It’s not clear that these final rises are in fact phonetically identical, and it seems transparent that their social uses differ from social group to social group, though I’d like to highlight the use of uptalk first documented by Cynthia McLemore (above), and othersw pursuing her work.

Mark Liberman has unraveled some of this, in particular in two Language Log postings. In “Uptalk is not HRT” (3/28/06), Mark says:

The Wikipedia article on “High rising terminal” (to which a search for “uptalk” redirects you, alas) says:

Towards the end of the statement (the terminal), the intonation starts high and rises.

This is empirically false for many instances of uptalk whose pitch tracks I’ve examined. Uptalk often starts low, at the bottom of the speaker’s range. I believe that the “high rising” idea came out of a contested 1990s theory of intonational meaning, which posited a qualitative distinction between high rises and low rises, and assigned uptalk to the category of “high rise” for theory-internal rather than empirical reasons. It’s also possible that some geographical variants of uptalk are really high rising in general, though I haven’t seen any careful studies that support this conclusion.

Mark gives links to earlier LLog postings.

A follow-up by Mark on 11/14/06: “Satirical cartoon uptalk is not HRT either”, on the tv series Family Guy.

Then the deal is that if uptalk isn’t natural for you, you’ll hear it as question intonation, the closest thing you’ve got  — as Taylor Mali does on his site.

(Wikipedia on Mali:

Taylor McDowell Mali (born 28 March 1965) is an American slam poet, humorist, teacher, and voiceover artist..)

4 Responses to “Rising pitch”

  1. thnidu Says:

    So, have you commented on, or corrected, the Wikipedia article, or have you decided that it’s pointless?

  2. Intonation | English Grammar Says:

    […] Rising pitch […]

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