01/10/2014 10:23 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

Uptalk in Southern California

Over the last few weeks, we (Amanda Ritchart, a linguistics graduate student at UCSD and Professor Amalia Arvaniti from the University of Kent) have received extensive media coverage on our study exploring the form and use of "uptalk" -- rising pitch movements at the end of statements -- in the speech of young speakers in Southern California (or SoCal as it is locally known). Although the phenomenon of uptalk is not new, we wanted to set up a linguistic study in which we could get a systematic look at the way young SoCal speakers are using uptalk today. In a nutshell, we found that all of all our speakers used uptalk no matter their diverse backgrounds. Our sample included both male and female speakers of all socioeconomic classes, and our speakers had grown up in four regions in SoCal: Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside. Some were monolingual speakers of English, but almost half were bilingual, i.e. they had grown up speaking not only English but another language as well, such as Armenian, Tagalog, Spanish and Vietnamese. None of this variation, except for gender, seemed to matter when it came to using uptalk, however.

In general, people seemed to be fascinated by the fact that men are using uptalk as well as women. This reaction from the public was very surprising to us at first. One of us, Amanda, has been born and raised in the area; the other, Amalia, lived there for a decade, so we are both familiar with men using uptalk in regular conversation. Also, several other studies investigating uptalk in different dialects of English (e.g., New Zealand English) have noted the use of uptalk by males as well, though women generally use it more often. Yet the "Valley Girl" stereotype has persisted in others' minds such that even Californians do not usually associate men with uptalk even though they do use it quite often! In fact, "Valley Girl" usually brings to mind rich, white young females from the San Fernando Valley, though this certainly wasn't the case for the women in our study. Thus we hope our study has helped weaken this stereotype that only a certain group of women use uptalk in SoCal. While overall SoCal women use uptalk more often than SoCal men (and realize it differently as well), they certainly do not have ownership over this speech style.

The media attention to our study is testament to the fact that language is a social phenomenon that is of interest to everyone. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile pondering why the use of uptalk by males holds such fascination. This is clearly related to the "Valley Girl" stereotype described earlier; the fact that images from Clueless were used to illustrate online articles on our work is no coincidence in this respect. The fact then that men may be using a linguistic feature that is so abhorrent in females is doubly shocking to many. In Amalia's view, this reflects attitudes to gender and gender stereotypes: "ditzy" females are to be accepted as a necessary evil, but now a study finds that males can be "ditzy" too? Shocking!

Of course we never said that men (or women for that matter) are ditzy because they use uptalk. There are several other claims we have not made in our work and for which we have taken flack from some fellow linguists. For example, there are blog postings mentioning that uptalk existed in many parts of the English-speaking world well before our study. We have never disputed that; indeed, our study, having focused on young SoCal speakers, makes no claims about how older speakers or speakers outside SoCal talk, how the trend may have started or how it has spread. Nevertheless, our results do bust the stereotype that only women use uptalk, and the strength of the stereotype is evident in the interest in our study.