Uptalk has been described as a “wretched lift” and the fuel behind the “most aggressively inarticulate generation.” It’s used by Londoners, Australians, and even President George W. Bush, yet it remains stereotyped to young women. Think of the lilt of a so-called “Valley Girl,” take away the comic exaggeration, and you’re there.
Dispelling any stereotypes about uptalk is necessary, especially because sounding like a woman is damning enough in the first place. A 2009 Northwestern University study looked at the connection between vocal cues, résumé information, and gender. Applicants with “masculine voices” were consistently rated more competent than female applicants, despite any information written on the résumé. “The impact of vocal femininity on competence was largely due to the overlap between perceptions of vocal femininity and babyishness,” said lead author Sei Jin Ko. “That is men, the higher status group, are rated high on competence ... whereas women, the lower status group, are rated low.”
"Uptalk is no longer just a part of Valley Girl speak."
The harshest criticism a man will hear about his voice is that it’s not deep enough to attract a mate. But the female voice is fanatically dissected, mainly by men. And it isn’t just a matter of what men consider sexy; a female vocal inflection, says linguistics professor Carmen Fought, can deem the woman as “insecure, emotional, or even stupid.” Even some academics have described uptalk as a “women’s” and “powerless language” despite the fact that the women using it are often intelligent and socially successful.
When linguistics professor Thomas Linneman studied episodes of Jeopardy! looking for uptalk, he found that the more successful women spoke with the inflection. This baffled him because “uptalk is so clearly linked to uncertainty” and the relationship between the dialect and female winners was “exactly the opposite of what one would expect.” The only explanation for this occurrence Linneman offers is that the women are compensating for their intelligence because society tells them that being smart isn’t hot. So they dumb it down, ensuring that their success doesn’t temper with the existing gender hierarchy.
Sure, maybe there is some truth in Linneman’s theory, but what if—crazy thought—that’s just the way their voices sounded?
A new paper authored by linguistics professors Amanda Ritchart and Amalia Arvanti asks, “Do we all speak like Valley Girls?” The answer is basically yes, if you’re young and from southern California. After studying the speech patterns of native southern Californian undergraduates (12 female, 11 male), Ritchart and Arvanti determined that each participant spoke with the rising lilt, regardless of gender or socioeconomic background. When making a statement, their pitch would rise as if they were asking a question, with a subtle difference when the pitch began to rise. (For statements, it’s later.) “It appears that most young SoCal English speakers use uptalk frequently and in several situations,” the authors write. “Uptalk is no longer just a part of Valley Girl speak.”
Ritchart and Arvaniti aren’t the only linguists to determine that uptalk has moved away from the shopping malls of San Fernando Valley and into the mouths of perfectly successful adults around the country. The association of uptalk with feminine stupidity is mirrored in the criticism of “vocal fry,” another pitch. While vocal fry hasn’t been upgraded from language fad to dialect, it’s similarly connected to successful career-minded women despite being “so annoying.”
At what point will women’s voices stop being judged for what they imply, and just be seen as the byproduct of having a larynx? This probably won’t happen all too soon, but in the opinion of Amanda Hess, “As women gain status and power in the professional world, young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard.”
“From Valley Girls to the Kardashians,” Douglas Quenqua wrote in the New York Times, “young women have long been mocked for the way they talk.” Although that is true, what’s also true is that while some critics have focused on how dumb they think she sounds, uptalk-queen Kim Kardashian has gone on to become a pretty successful businesswoman. Right now, her voice is, like, the least of her worries.