G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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Thomas Linneman of The College of William and Mary has published interesting research in the journal Gender & Society on gender voice intonation on the game show Jeopardy!. The abstract:
Uptalk is the use of a rising, questioning intonation when making a statement, which has become quite prevalent in contemporary American speech. Women tend to use uptalk more frequently than men do, though the reasons behind this difference are contested. I use the popular game show Jeopardy! to study variation in the use of uptalk among the contestants’ responses, and argue that uptalk is a key way in which gender is constructed through interaction. While overall, Jeopardy! contestants use uptalk 37 percent of the time, there is much variation in the use of uptalk. The typical purveyor of uptalk is white, young, and female. Men use uptalk more when surrounded by women contestants, and when correcting a woman contestant after she makes an incorrect response. Success on the show produces different results for men and women. The more successful a man is, the less likely he is to use uptalk; the more successful a woman is, the more likely she is to use uptalk.
It’s commonly accepted that men generally lower their voice when attempting to woo a woman, yet this research indicates that they are more likely to give it an upward lilt when competing against a woman. That’s interesting and warrants further research into context-dependent gender speech patterns.
Linneman told his school’s paper that he tackled this question because it became a pet peeve of his that his female students would end their statements and questions in a high pitch, and he’s used it in his classes to spark debate about gender differences.
Douglas Quenqua had a piece in the New York Times on uptalk. He wrote (emphasis mine):
“Like” and uptalk often go hand in hand. Several studies have shown that uptalk can be used for any number of purposes, even to dominate a listener. In 1991, Cynthia McLemore, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that senior members of a Texas sorority used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks. (“We have a rush event this Thursday? And everyone needs to be there?”)
Dr. Eckert of Stanford recalled a study by one of her students, a woman who worked at a Jamba Juice and tracked instances of uptalking customers. She found that by far the most common uptalkers were fathers of young women. For them, it was “a way of showing themselves to be friendly and not asserting power in the situation,” she said.
As Quenqua points out, young women set the tone, literally, for these speech patterns. Quenqua reports that they lead mainstream society by up to half a generation, so perhaps what was deemed Valley Girl accent from the 1980s is becoming more common today across the age spectrum and both sexes.
Analysis out of Sichuan University, China put a picture to this intonation. Researchers recorded the voices of a mixed gender group of 16 year-old UK students as they read various lines from the Disney movie Cindarella. The graphs are helpful because they chart across the actual words in the control sentences and give a good depiction of the intonation patterns:
Some added thoughts: besides the hold that young women have on pop culture, increased workplace interactions and men’s increased fear at being deemed “too dominant” might also play a part in the increase of upward intonation in men, if it is actually a “thing”. This could arise from men just being in close proximity to more women. Many men enjoy being seen as dominant, but many others try to mask their dominance because they’d have negative experiences with it outside of romantic interactions, especially in school and the work place. And even within relationships, vocal patterns may shift over time as the relationship shifts from wooing phase to coupled phase.
Here is a video from a professional voice trainer providing an overview of uptalk and another speech pattern called “vocal fry” and examples of both: