The lowdown on upspeak

An Irishman’s Diary about sociolinguistics

Writing in the New Yorker recently, essayist Adam Gopnik made a strong defence of the teenage habit of punctuating every sentence with such terms as "um", "you know" and "like". He had argued the case before, half-seriously. But this time, to his delight, he had scientific backing: a study by "sociolinguists" at the University of Texas.

The kernel of Gopnik’s case was that, far from being the lazy habit most adults take them for, the verbal fillers used by teenagers are ways of deliberately compressing information, as all of us must in everyday speech.

They serve as qualifiers, he suggested, to maintain a certain distance from the apparent facts of any story, based on a scrupulous concern that those facts might not be reliable. In this sense, the "ums" and "likes" of teenagers are not unlike the more respectable qualifiers – "as it were", "so to speak", etc – that we find in the writings of, say, Henry James.

Here is Gopnik’s example of typical teenage-speak (informed by his having a daughter in the affected age group): “So we, like, um, went to the pizza place, but the, uh, you know – the guy? – said, like, no, so we, uh, decided that we’d like to go to, like, a coffee shop, but, uh, Colette can’t – she has, like, a gluten thing. You know what I mean? So that’s why we came home, and, um, you know, would you, like, make us eggs?”


And here’s his translation of the same passage into Jamesian: “So we tried, as it were, to go and enjoy a pizza but the, so-to-speak, maitre d’ of the establishment claimed – a statement that we were in no social position to dispute – that there was, so to speak, “no room for us at the inn”. And then Colette insisted – and far be it from me either to contest or endorse her self-diagnosis, that she could not eat wheat-based food, so, knowing full well that it is likely to be irksome and ill-timed, could you feed us with scrambled eggs?”

That’s Gopnik’s humorous exaggeration, of course. But the Texan study supported it to the extent of finding that such “discourse markers” as “um” and “like” were especially popular with people (female as a rule) who also, in personality tests, scored as being “conscientious”.

These speakers were more thoughtful about themselves and their surroundings than the norm, the findings suggested. Hence their constantly qualified speech, which indicated an awareness (this is Gopnik’s summary, not the teenagers’ or the Texans’) “that there is no settled truth, that all narration is subjective”.

There’s a strong correlation, I would suggest, between those same “discourse markers” and the phenomenon known as “upspeak”, or as linguists calls it, the “high rising terminal”.

This is the tendency, again common among teenage girls, to end sentences on a high note. Which also has a strongly qualifying effect, turning every statement – eg “Yesterday I stubbed my toe – it really hurts” – into a series of questions, eg: “Yesterday? I stubbed my toe? It really hurts?”

And I’m deeply interested in this subject, not just because I too have a teenage daughter, whose statement-questions I must frequently translate into Jamesian (or sometimes Joycean), but also because I use upspeak myself a lot.

You could even say I am a native upspeaker, because I come from an area – the southeast Border region – in which, uniquely, the habit is endemic among people of all ages. Ours is literally a high rising terminal, in fact, because for reasons I’ve never seen explained, we add the word “high”, or “hi”, at the end of all our sentences.

The effect, again, is to turn statements into questions, eg: “Yesterday, hi? I stubbed my toe, hi? It really hurts, hi?” Other examples include an old joke: Q. What does Santa Claus say in Dundalk? A. “Ho, ho, ho, hi?”

It has always seemed to me that this too is an act of deliberate qualification, an invitation to the listener to contradict or add to the apparent facts of any story, if he can.

I'd be reluctant to suggest that the people who use it – mostly residents of Louth, Armagh, Monaghan, and Cavan – are a notably conscientious breed. Indeed, a contrary view is sometimes expressed.

But to paraphrase Gopnik, I suspect that this Border version of upspeak may relate to the greater than usual scarcity of settled truths within a 20-mile radius of Forkhill. If there are any sociolinguists who can back me up in this hunch, I’d love to hear from you.