Language Rocks!

I’m Speaking Upspeak?

by on Apr.21, 2009, under Language

What is “upspeak“? Upspeak is when you make a spoken statement sound like a question by raising the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence (technically called a high rising terminal). If you want examples, just watch any Wayne’s World or Bill and Ted movie, or eavesdrop on teenagers’ or 20 somethings’ shopping mall conversations.

The written equivalent is the simple question mark? However, there is a world of difference between upspeak and a question mark.

Upspeak forms part of “Valley Speak” or “Valspeak“, which is the colloqiual language or sociolect originally spoken by residents (mainly teenagers and 20-somethings) of California’s San Fernando Valley. It originated in the upper-middle class, yet now it is a worldwide speech inflection.

Language constantly evolves, and so it should. We use it to express both our deep and surface thoughts. California rides the crest of a wave in that it is one of the most cosmopolitan regions of the world and hence, is prone to many changes.

What interests me is how a spoken sentence can be changed from a statement into what seems like a question. An upspoken sentence is not really a question (at least not consciously), nor is there any questioning intent (or is there?). There is a discrepancy between word order and meaning and how the words are delivered vocally.

Here’s an example.

Let’s take the phrase “so I said I would do it” (“so” is so a Valspeak word). This written sentence is not a question. But in Valspeak it can be. Just raise the pitch of your voice at the end. This is actually a common verbal tool. This technique has been appropriated by proponents of Valspeak and integrated into popular culture. So why do it?

If you want to make a verbal statement, why not just make the statement? Why turn it into what sounds like a question? Well, I think the upspeak part of Valspeak may be an exaggeration of the ancient art of rhetoric, which is commonly used by modern politicians and speakers. It has been used since ancient Grecian times as a form of oratory persuasion; a subtle way of making a statement and asking a question at the same time, as well as being a tacit call to action.

Spoken rhetoric and upspeak illustrates the versatility of language in that its spoken form, it can negate the use of the 5Ws (and 1H (although I would add in another W: which)) who, what, why, where, when, and how, that are the classic precursors to a question and used for gathering information. The 5ws were made most famous by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “The Elephant’s Child.”

Nobody deliberately decides that they are going to create a way of speaking. It is a natural emanation of human needs and expression. That’s why I think that upspeak is ok, even though I don’t use it or like hearing it (I think it’s cheesy).

However, I think the key to understanding the difference between upseak and political rhetoric lies in intent. Rhetoric is designed to ask questions and provoke a response, whereas, to me, upspeak just makes the speaker sound like they are either unsure of what they are saying or beause they are, consciously or unconsciously, following a vocal fashion.

Am I opposed to upspeak? Absolutely not. It’s a part of modern speech, and I embrace change.

I’ll sign off by saying simply “Upspeak is ok?”

“See it all, till tomorrow”

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