Upward inflection is a feature in some English language variants in which sentences end with a rising intonation as if the sentence is a question. The rising intonation can occur one or more syllables after the last accented syllable toward the end of the sentence. Upward inflection is also referred to as the high-rising terminal (HRT), valley girl speech, high-rising tone, or Australian Question Intonation.
The rising intonation is common in the speech of young women, and it can be interpreted as a form of conversational weakness, insecurity, or lack of confidence. The upward speech pattern is used more often by successful young women and less often by successful young men.
Origin of Upward Inflection
Even though the origin of upward inflection remains uncertain, most people believe that the concept originated from the American West Coast, in Southern California. It is assumed that the pattern developed among the young women in the San Fernando Valley.
In a 1982 song dubbed “Valley Girl” by Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit, there is a style of speaking where sentences end as if a question when they are not necessarily a question. As a result, female fans of this music were labeled narcissistic since the pattern of the song ending with an upward intonation appeared to portray them as insecure and powerless.
Upward inflection is also perceived to have originated from the Southern Hemisphere, in New Zealand or Australia, but most New Zealanders say that the linguistic pattern originated from their country and not in Australia. The Southern Hemisphere origin theory is supported by British people who say that the pattern might have originated from either Australia or New Zealand during immigration to London.
They also suggest that British expatriates traveling to the Southern Hemisphere might have borrowed the concept and have taken it back to the United Kingdom.
How Upward Inflection is Used
One of the ways that upward inflection is used is to show authoritativeness and avoid interruptions when speaking. It is common among successful or powerful people, especially women, who want to demonstrate their stature and build consensus. Also, when used by male speakers, upward inflection is used to emphasize the male authoritativeness and show politeness.
Ending a sentence with a high intonation can help the speaker discourage the other party from asking questions or interrupting the conversation. For example, when starting a phone conversation, a female speaker might say: “Hello, my name is Janet? And I am the CEO of Simple Solutions? I am calling to see if you may need any help with financial records?”
The other use of upward inflection is to make a statement but with a hidden meaning. A speaker may make a statement dictating their course of action but still expecting an opinion on whether whatever they are doing is right.
For example, a speaker might say, “I think we should travel tomorrow morning to catch the flight?” Even though the speaker is making a statement on the plans to travel the following day in the morning, he/she is implicitly asking the question “Do you think tomorrow morning is the best time to travel?” The statement implies that the speaker is not giving the final word on the matter and is instead open to the other person continuing the conversation.
Effects of Upward Inflection
There are several effects of using an upward intonation when ending a sentence. One of these effects is that the speaker may be perceived as insecure about the statement they are making. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that using upward inflection can make people perceive you as insecure, which undermines effective speaking. During job interviews, an interviewer may perceive the interviewee as being insecure and less confident in themselves.
Upward inflections may also be used by the leaders of a peer group to assert their dominance. Using rising intonations when speaking to juniors of a peer group can make the declarations sound like questions and reinforces their importance. A 2005 study by Winnie Cheng and Martin Warren showed that speakers in leadership positions such as academic supervisors and chairpersons of committees use upward inflection more often than the people they are leading. The research found that the choice of tone was determined by the designated role of the speaker and the discourse type.
Examples of Sentences using Upward Inflection
“Mom, yesterday we went camping at the White Mountain Forest? We all had fun, and we shared a meal with the rangers?”
“I think you need to have a look at the software I am coding?”
“The new student looks so jovial today? He must have received some exciting news?”
“I think we should take the right path up the hill?”
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