The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Upspeak

Upspeak makes me cringe.

Maybe this is just one of my pet peeves as a college instructor who works with 20-something-year-old students. But upspeak, as it is called, is not what makes my worth living. It makes me cringe.

Per Wikipedia, upspeak is most common among American and Australian speakers of English and entails a rising intonation at the end of any and all utterances. In other words, upspeak (also known as uptalk, rising inflection, or high rising intonation) turns every sentence into a question.

Linguists have studied upspeak, finding that it occurs most frequently among younger individuals and among women. Upspeak is reportedly most common among teenage girls from Southern California (AKA "Valley girls") and among adults from North Dakota and Minnesota, where it may reflect lingering influences of the Norwegian language. Linguists have further concluded that upspeak serves conversational purposes, discouraging interruption and seeking reassurance.

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Be that as it may, upspeak jars me. I spent the past semester listening to my students make presentations, and no matter how brilliant their ideas, their reliance on upspeak distracted me to no end.

Maybe I should let it go. Maybe I should let language evolve. I do know that I have never commented on upspeak to any of my students who do it.

I simply raise the issue, as a teacher, about when - if ever - a student should be critiqued on how she or he says something, as opposed to what she or he says, which seems a legitimate and non-controversial target for advice.

Along these lines, what about the "likes," the "you knows," and the "whatevers" that intrude into what many of my young students say? Should I call their attention to how annoying these discourse fillers may be, or would that just make them self-conscious and therefore even worse speakers?

Here is a conclusion that makes sense to me, one at which I have arrived during my own career which started 34 years ago as a flip and sometimes profane 26-year-old college professor. What one says is more important than how one says it, and a speaker is well served by not using a conversational style that distracts from the message. And I think upspeak distracts.

The issue, of course, is how to decrease it.

Happy New Year?

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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