Dec 7, 2014

Uptalk in training?

Like a number of other translators I know, for a number of years, I've followed the progress and publications of a young blogger in California, Pat Flynn, who engages in a wide range of transparent efforts involving online marketing and passive income. He has had many useful things to say about the technical aspects of e-books, podcast production and other subjects of interest to me. He also interviews various people involved in online businesses, and some of these interviews cover subjects I care about.

One recent interview was with a fellow who creates e-learning courses. As readers of my blog are probably aware, this is a subject which has had my attention for about two years now, and after reading some of Pat's interview transcript, I decided to download the MP3 recording and listen to the full interview. I didn't make it far.

The interviewee had a lot of interesting things to say, but I found it extremely difficult to concentrate on his content, because he, like, kept using a rising inflection at the end of every sentence? This is what is referred to as uptalk, upspeak, high rising terminal speech or other expressions. For me, I think the phrase "terminated communication" describes it best. Particularly for older Americans, uptalk can be very difficult to hear.

I've also noticed uptalk creeping into some of the training videos for the language professions. When I raised this issue with one person involved in the production of such materials, the response seemed to indicate that the private communication was deeply offensive and that I was "attacking" the person using that difficult inflection in the recording. On the contrary; I know the presenter is a competent professional with useful things to say, and I simply wanted a good person and a good company to benefit from communication less likely to pose challenges for a key "constituency" in the US and UK. On average, translators tend to be somewhat older, perhaps even more conservative in their language habits, and for now I just can't see uptalk as any possible advantage unless you are doing a guest workshop for students at a community college in the San Fernando Valley of California or some other hellish backwater.

I can't say to what extent uptalk may cause problems in other English-speaking cultures, but where I come from there are definitely issues in a professional setting, as this person rather "offensively" points out:

I prefer the more humorous take from this fellow:

His comments on courtrooms 15 years from now were amusing and are probably frighteningly predictive. How would courtroom judges react to an interpreter speaking that way today?

Have you encountered uptalk in professional settings? Is your experience with it positive or negative, and do you see it as useful in some contexts of training or public speaking? Am I just showing my Jurassic disposition to complain of such things?

And, like, when you comment, like, please, like, let us know if you are, like, a native speaker of, like, some kind of, like, English and like how old you are?


  1. Great post, Kevin. Thank you. My daughter uses 'like' a lot. I've been trying to er like break her of the habit? But like it's like really hard?
    I'm like a native speaker of English?
    Women like don't like telling like anybody their age like when they get to er like a certain like age?

    1. Ah, Nikki :-) No one is shy about boasting of the age of vintage wine, and those who are older than a good wine on the table should be proud to say so. It's been fascinating to trawl YouTube for videos on the subject, which apparently a few native English thought leaders in translation had never heard of until I brought it up and who probably think I've manufactured the whole controversy somehow. Although perhaps this is all part of a clever strategy to appeal to the upcoming generation of post-editors, which would explain those rumors about SDL signing Moon Zappa as their spokesperson on the next road tour.

  2. High rising intonation is very normal New Zealand and Australia, where it has a number of distinct (and mostly positive) social purposes. The Wikipedia article sums it up quite well: "It has been suggested that the HRT has a facilitative function in conversation (i.e., it encourages the addressee to participate in the conversation), and such functions are more often used by women. It also subtly indicates that the speaker is "not finished yet", thus perhaps discouraging interruption. Its use is also suggestive of seeking assurance from the listener that they are aware of what the speaker is referring to."

  3. This paper also refers to high rising terminals as "positive politeness markers" - which is how they are used here in New Zealand:

    1. So if the US were to ship all its uptalkers to Britain's former penal colony or NZ they should thrive? Sounds like a win-win solution.

  4. These days, it's a bit more difficult to get in. :)

  5. I think both videos are missing something. Time and speaking patterns move on. I predict that both "uptalk" and this [mis]use of "like" will grow, and one day the serious people in our society will use them. I don't look forward to it, but that won't matter.

  6. Ah, Kevin, I just read your post, and I'm like, Wow! It took uptalk to make you post a video from no lesser source than Fox News. That's absolutely a first :)

    At the risk of sounding like a smartass, which people figure out I am anyway, here's a bit of a reading list on uptalk, vocal fry and like, in that order: [Nothing to match "sexy baby vocal virus"]

    I particalurly, um, like the last one, where it says: "This use of “like” allows us to introduce not just what we said or thought, but how. Instead of merely saying words, “like” with “be” allows us to enact the scene."

    Language has scientifically been proven to be a chaotic, unruly and illogical beast, and yet every animal in this big language zoo, no matter how ugly or unappealing it seems at first sight, turns out to serve some sort of a purpose. I prefer to look at things from this perspective: how amazing that language allows relatively small variations to serve as powerful markers, and trigger such strong reactions, completely independent from the specific words uttered.

    Oh, yours truly is a 36-year-old non-native male speaker of English.

  7. My longer comment got eaten by Blogger's sign-in system so let me just say YUP! I'm with Kevin!

  8. Interesting! Not only is the question whether or not a judge would react to the interpreter..but it would also be interesting to know how the interpreter would interpret a person using uptalk etc. to convey 'like' the whole package of impressions :)

    I am a Belgian living in India. I personally only came across uptalk etc. in hollywood movies and series, but there are many other interesting accents and speaking patterns I hear every day in a professional setup.

  9. "Valley girls", humbug!

    This is a crude conspiracy against the true originators of uptalk:

    The Daleks:

    (I remember thinking is when I read the first article in LL on uptalk)


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