The Real Purpose of Uptalk Is to Get You to Shut Up and Listen

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Photo: kali9/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Before the hand-wringing over vocal fry, before the arguments over how often is too often to say “sorry,” there was the outcry over uptalk, the habit of inflecting a sentence to sound like a question (You know, like this?).

But you probably already knew what it was. Uptalk is one in a long list of examples of how fraught it can be to speak while female. Especially if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a young one, you’ve probably been chastised for it at some point in your life — for sounding unconfident, or deferential, or annoying. But as writer Nick Douglas recently highlighted in Lifehacker, linguists have another explanation for uptalk, one that positions it not as a verbal tic, but as a valuable tool of communication.

Uptalk was first identified in the 1970s, but according to the BBC, the phenomenon didn’t receive its current name until 1993, when writer James Gorman coined the term in a New York Times column decrying its rise. Gorman confessed that he found uptalk “tentative, testing, oversensitive … wimpy.” (“Imagine how it would sound in certain cocksure, authoritative occupations, like police work,” he wrote: “You’re under arrest? You have some rights?”)

And he’s been in good company ever since. But lately, Douglas noted, uptalk has become both more accepted and more vigorously defended, possibly “because millennials, a generation of (and sometimes raised by) uptalkers, are old enough to hold positions of authority.” Or maybe, he wrote, “it’s because in an age of electronic distraction, uptalk is crucial to keeping someone’s attention”:

By turning a declaration into a question, it invites the listener to listen actively, to nod or confirm, much like adding “you know?” or “right?” to a sentence. It also serves a more basic function of “floor-holding,” preventing interruption by indicating there’s more to come; it turns a period into a semicolon.

Research has confirmed as much: As Douglas noted, a handful of studies have demonstrated that uptalkers rely on the inflection to keep their conversation partner engaged and attentive. To skeptics, uptalking may seem like it’s turning every statement into a question, but really, it’s turning them into demands: I’m not done speaking yet, so keep listening.

The Real Purpose of Uptalk Is to Make You Shut Up and Listen