Question marks, uptalk, and HRT

In my last post (“The etymological fallacy”) I desperately wanted to end the post with the sentence

Perhaps the etymological fallacy is the mark of an idle mind.

but it sounded too dull and lifeless; I liked it much better with a question mark at the end:

Perhaps the etymological fallacy is the mark of an idle mind?

I thought it perfectly portrayed what I wanted to say, but with an invitation for a reader to agree or disagree; a sort of interactive cue – when I read the sentence with a question mark, I read it with steadily rising intonation as if it were on the verge of becoming a question. I refrained, though, because all of my training told me to do otherwise.

This kind of rising intonation is what a lot of people associate with the term “uptalk,” which is the “informal” term for the kind of rising intonation that you might have noticed in the speech of prepubescent girls (which is an association, I must add, that is stereotypical and not entirely true; Mark Liberman has shown that George W. Bush has the propensity to uptalk like a prepubescent girl in certain cases). Part of the stereotype surrounding uptalk is that it is an indication of the speaker being unsure of themselves and/or seeking reassurance from the audience. While it’s not clear from the existing research what exactly the etiology of uptalk is, just as it’s unclear what exactly the distribution is, there have been strong indications that both the distribution and the etiology are vastly different from what the stereotypes would suggest – not only do non-prepubescent girls use uptalk, but certain speakers use uptalk even in situations where they are very sure of themselves and their expertise.

The reason I said that uptalk is the informal term for this kind of intonation is because there is an alternate term that’s making the rounds as a “formal” or “technical” synonym for uptalk: “high-rising terminals,” or HRTs. Wikipedia redirects to the HRT page from an “uptalk” query, and a TimesOnline article that referred to Language Log also equated uptalk with HRT. Unfortunately, this is a synonymy that linguists at Language Log, Mark Liberman especially, would like to see wiped off the face of the earth. In a post entitled “Uptalk is not HRT,” he claims vehemently that

“High rising terminal” or “HRT”, invented by linguists, is a bad term, making a false claim about the phonetics of the phenomenon. It should be abandoned.

Mark’s claim was made on the grounds that pitch tracks of uptalk usually start from the middle or low end of the speaker’s range, whereas HRT is officially defined as a “a high tone beginning on the final accented syllable near the end of the statement, and continuing to increase in frequency to the end of the intonational phrase.”

The reason I’m going on at length about uptalk and HRT is because I disagree with Mark about what the fate of the term HRT should be. I agree that using HRT to refer to uptalk is incorrect and misleading, but I think that HRT does have a legitimate type of intonation to which it could correctly refer, and that is the type that I mentioned at the top of the post. I think that in phrases like that one, where the terminal rise appears to start near the high end of the speakers range, could be referred to as HRTs if an analysis of the pitch tracks agreed that that is what’s happening.

The interesting thing to note is that if I were to use the term HRT to refer to that kind of phrase, the stereotype about the speaker seeking reassurance from the audience would be more or less true (which is a fact possibly corroborated by the use of a question mark to represent such a phrase orthographically). This type of phrase would also fit more accurately with the term “interrogatory statement,” which the author of the Times article used to refer to both uptalk and HRTs. It’s clear that there is a kind of declarative statement that is puposefully delivered as a question, and whether it is called an HRT or something else, I think it deserves more attention, and it might help clear up some of the confusion about the relationship between uptalk and HRT.


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