December 8, 2013 | 5
– “Valley Girl,” Frank Zappa (1982)
Frank Zappa’s quirky Top 40 hit from 1982, “Valley Girl,” doesn’t get much radio airplay these days, even on the “nostalgia” stations, but it captured the birth of a linguistic phenomenon in the running commentary provided by his daughter, Moon Unit — “val-speak,” a strange dialect spoken by the female denizens of the San Fernando valley area in Southern California characterized by ending sentences with a slight rise in pitch, as if asking a question, now known as “uptalk.” And it might have stayed in the Valley, too, if it weren’t for that meddling musician and his daughter, who broadcast it to the masses. Soon everyone was walking around declaring their school lunches were “grody to the max,” I mean, “gag me with a spoon,” every uptalking utterance punctuated by frequent insertions of “like” and “totally.”
Unlike most pop culture fads, which tend to die out pretty quickly — it’s no easy feat to “make fetch happen” – Val-speak didn’t die out; it spread, all over Southern California and across socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender boundaries. There are now Valley Boys as well as Valley Girls, if the frequent use of uptalk is your metric. That’s the conclusion of Amanda Ritchart, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), who reported on the results from her new study investigating the prevalence of uptalk (or “high rise terminals” in linguistic jargon) among Southern California young people at the annual fall meeting of the Acoustical Society of America this past week in San Francisco.
It’s the nature of language to continually evolve, and each teen generation has its own preferred slang, but at least in SoCal, uptalk has become a mainstay (“like” and “totally” have shown remarkable staying power, too). Here is a classic example from the 1995 film Clueless (a re-imagining of the classic Jane Austen novel, Emma), in which our heroine, Cher, is giving a presentation in her high school debate class:
Tweak the specific jargon just a tad and you’d have your typical Southern Californian student, circa 2013. And while the speech patterns are often used to indicate a certain, shall we say “ditziness” (or insecurity), Ritchart and her colleague, Amalia Arvaniti, argue that the use of uptalk is actually quite nuanced in terms of how it is used to communicate meaning, based on their acoustical analysis of the vocal stylings of 23 UCSD undergraduates.
Ritchart and Arvaniti gathered 23 native English speakers from among the UCSD student populace (12 women, 11 men), and had them perform two speech tasks. In the first, participants watched a clip of a popular sitcom (Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother) and then were asked to describe what happened in their own words. For the second task, they were asked to provide directions for another person to help them navigate through a map of San Diego showing popular landmarks. And then they analyzed the recordings, specifically looking at the location of the rise in pitch in a given utterance, as well as how much it rose.
For instance, Ritchart and Arvaniti found that speakers tended to use a very small rise if they were making a statement, as opposed to a large rise if they were asking a question. There were also so-called “holding the floor” uptalk utterances — a means of indicating that the speaker is not quite finished to avoid being interrupted — and using uptalk as a “confirmation request” to make sure the listener has understood correctly. The latter was particularly prevalent during the map task, since it required constant interaction between the two parties to navigate the landmarks.
The researchers found that uptalk is most frequently used to ask a question or for confirmation requests, but that’s not it’s only purpose, and the precise nature of the rise (how much and where it occurs in an utterance) is critical to conveying the intended meaning. “We can say that SoCal speakers do not ask questions when they should be making statements,” Ritchart and Arvaniti. wrote in a lay language paper. “They use similar pitch configurations for both, but the two show subtle differences which allow native SoCal speakers at least to distinguish between questions proper and statements.”
Should anyone doubt the importance of inflection in conveying meaning in spoken conversation, I give you this charming Bud Light commercial from a few years back, in which the only dialogue is “Dude” (there was a second and third commercial in the series, but this is my favorite):
That’s more “Bro-Speak” than Val-speak, although as Ritchart found, both men and women in her study used uptalk. The women did use it more frequently, and they tended to begin their rises in pitch later than male speakers. Those rises were significantly larger than those in the men’s utterances, too, similar to what linguists have observed in New Zealand and Australian English speakers.
“We believe that uptalk is becoming more prevalent and systematic in its use for the younger generations in Southern California,” Ritchart said during a press conference last week. “We found use of uptalk in all of our speakers, despite their diverse backgrounds in socioeconomic status, ethnicity, bilungualism, and gender.” She hopes to next compare these findings with utterances by Northern California speakers, or even those outside of the region, to see if its still spreading. Who knows? Perhaps the day is nearer than you think when one can say, “We are all Valley Girls now.” Like, totally.
Barry, A.S. (2007) “The form, function and distribution of high rising intonation in Southern California and Southern British English.” PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, UK.
Daly, N., & Warren, P. (2001) “Pitching it differently in New Zealand English: Speaker sex and intonation patterns,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 5(1), 85-96.
Fletcher, J., Grabe, E., and Warren, P. (2005) “Prosodic typology: The phonology of intonation and phrasing,” Intonational Variation in Four Dialects of English: The High Rising Tune, pp. 390-409. Oxford University Press.
Ritchart, Amanda and Arvaniti, Amalia. (2013) “The use of high rise terminals in Southern Californian English,” presented at the 166th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.
Warren, P. (2005) “Patterns of late rising in New Zealand English: Intonational variation or intonational change?,” Language Variation and Change 17(02), 209-230.