Upspeak, also known as high rising terminal, is a feature of some English accents where statements have a rising intonation pattern in their final syllables.
Have you ever met someone who constantly ended every sentence with a question mark, even if what he–or more likely, she–said was not a question? Maybe you thought of her as a ditz, an airhead, or labelled her a Valley Girl. But did you ever wonder why she spoke that way?
S.A. Slack brought regional accents up to me the other day as we were discussing characters, and we paused to discuss upspeak in more depth. Many people find this manner of speech annoying and can’t help but immediately pass judgment on the speaker. However, isn’t this true of accents in general? Think of a heavy drawl from one of our southern states, or of talking with someone from London, England; speech patterns have as much influence on our perceptions as someone’s clothing does. Writers should be using this, as needed, as one more way to round out their characters.
Interested in what I could learn about people in general, I researched upspeak. While some people, especially young women, are indeed influenced to talk with that inflection solely by those around them, there is more to this than meets the eye (or ear). Linguists and sociologists who have studied the vocal phenomenon suggest that women are more likely to use language in ways that communicate social cues, build relationships, and even assert power. Young women tend to be the ones who are most ahead of the curve in linguistic innovation.
So what does upspeak do besides annoy some people? (There are differing opinions, of course, because many people can’t stand it, but let’s look at what some researchers have found.) One of upspeak’s major purposes is to show friendliness and help engage listeners in the conversation. By ending a sentence with a question mark instead of a declaration, a person is attempting to appear more open to conversation, more ready to listen, and even less narrow minded. One Stanford study showed that, among visitors at a popular local restaurant, those who engaged in upspeak most often were actually the fathers of young women.
While at first, upspeak appears to be a timid, even immature way of talking when compared with the bold, declarative way which many were raised to use, several studies have shown that it can be used in a number of ways, including to dominate listeners. Think of a senior sorority member talking to junior members and the condescending inflection in her voice as she states: “We have a rush event tomorrow? And everyone needs to be there?”
Language is always important when a writer is fleshing out characters. The words are on paper, but the reader should be able to hear them in his or her mind. Make the words understandable, but give your characters voices! Before you do that, however, do like I did and take a little time to research the voice you want to use; you might be surprised with what you find.