So, Like, Guys Can Be Valley Girls Too?

by Krystin Arneson

So, like, researchers in California have found out that, like, guys in California are now speaking like valley girls. They did this study that like, showed that guys are adopting the uptalk that was formerly the girls' domain. Weird, amiright? (OK, we can't do this anymore.) The team listened to the voices of 23 native Californians aged 18-23, and found that they're all adopting the end-of-sentence upward inflections. Because, like, every question is a sentence?

"We found use of uptalk in all of our speakers, despite their diverse backgrounds in socioeconomic status, ethnicity, bilingualism and gender," research leader and University of California linguist Amanda Ritchart said.

Women traditionally pave the way when it comes to changes in language and dialect — men tend to adopt the changes later. It's no different in this case of "high-rise terminals," which menas the "upward inflections at the end of a sentence." Or, valley-girl speak.

And this isn't isolated to California. The linguistic trend has spread from the San Fernando Valley (although it may well have started synchronously in different parts of the world) to become prevalent in the rest of the U.S., Australia, and um, southern Ontario.

The UK is in on it too, where some linguists attribute the trend to a popular Australian soap called Neighbors. After the show's up-talking characters had topped ratings for a few years, it was apparent that the spoken style had become enmeshed in young Brits' speech patterns. The spread of uptalk isn't likely to stop, either: Whereas once the Queen's English or the American Midwestern dialect was absorbed by learners on English-language tapes, the tapes now feature uptalk in an effort to make immigrants fit in.

Part of [Londoner and voice-over artist Kate Lock's] work involves dubbing voices for English language teaching tapes, and she finds that some producers specifically ask her to uptalk in order to imitate how English is spoken by young people - "We have to represent the way kids talk now." In short, if you're a non-English speaker using the new generation of tapes, the way you will learn to speak is uptalk: it's a seismic shift from the clipped 1950s vowels of yesteryear.

But uptalk still carries a stigma: The image of the valley girl is directly tied into the idea of uptalk, and with it, associations of ditziness, shallowness, and insecurity. Essentially, by sounding like the speaker is ending every sentence with a question, it's implied that the speaker is constantly asking if the audience is "with them;" if they agree enough to let the speaker proceed to the next articulation.

"I believe it is also an outgrowth of our politically correct society where people tiptoe around their beliefs by monitoring their language," communications consultant Diane DiResta said. "Uptalk is a form of this politically correct language. It's as if a person's tentative tone allows them to retract the statement if it is met with criticism or disapproval. People are afraid to take a stand."

A study of Jeopardy! contestants, for example, showed that contestants used uptalk 37 percent of the time — mostly when they were insecure about their answers. But researchers also found out that men's use of uptalk decreased as they gained points (and, with them, confidence), but that they engaged in it when they were correcting a woman's answer. While the researchers attribute it to "faux-chivalry", and quick-to-jump-skeptics might attribute it to linguistic mansplaining, there could be another reason: FOMO.

According to communication accomodation theory (CAT), people adopt their speech patterns — vocabulary, accent, and so on — to match those of people they're speaking with as a means of gaining acceptance within the group. In Jeopardy!, the variable loss and adoption of uptalk with guys could have been a subconscious way to try to relate to the group.

It also makes sense in the way that changes in linguistics relate to women: By speaking in the same way as their peers, CAT posits that they're more likely to be accepted. And now that more women are doing it, could it be possible that guys are CATing (meow!) to fit in with them? Maybe from FOMO?

"Whether we are hearing or lipreading speech articulations, a talker's speaking style has subtle influences on our own manner of speaking," said University of California psychology professor Lawrence Rosenblum, whose 2010 study on the social dynamics of accent mimicry was published in Attention, Perception and Psychophysics. "This unintentional imitation could serve as a social glue, helping us to affiliate and empathize with each other."

Rosenblum might be on to something there: Across the board, researchers in the new Adelaide study found, "that uptalk is becoming more prevalent and systematic in its use for the younger generations in Southern California."

"I think teenagers tend to pick this up simply because other teens talk like that and it's catchy and makes them feel good that they're talking like their friends," said Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen. "At bottom, ways of speaking are first and foremost ways of sounding the way we think we should sound, given who we are."

Weirdly enough, uptalk users don't consider themselves to sound ditzy or insecure: The stereotype is projected on them from speakers with "normalized" speech patterns.

"Change often causes alarm among people who do not use an innovative feature, and uptalk appears to be another example of this trend." Lancashire University linguist Dr. Claire Nance said. "No spoken language ever remains stable and constant change is very much the norm."

Then again, it could be because no one knows what the hell is going on anymore, and we're all wandering around in an existential linguistic crisis.

As one might guess from [writer Douglas] Coupland's espousal of HRT, uptalk is close to the spirit of postmodernism, concerned with advancing relativistic, provisional statements - in contrast with the classic discourse of modernism, pronouncing absolute truths.

And if that's the case, perhaps these uptalking young women and men are smarter than we've given them credit for.