Photograph by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images
Published December 6, 2013
It's not just Valley girls who talk, like, you know, a Valley girl.
A slight rise in pitch at the end of a sentence may be the most defining characteristic of a Valley girl, referring to the stereotypical ditzy, young, well-to-do, white women from the San Fernando Valley in southern California.
But according to research by Amanda Ritchart, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, young southern Californians of many ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, both women and men, speak with a rise in pitch—known as "uptalk." The study also shows that uptalk presents in many different forms and contexts.
In one of the first studies to take a detailed look at the phonetics of uptalk, Ritchart and her former adviser Amalia Arvaniti analyzed the speech of 23 college-age, native English speakers of different socioeconomic backgrounds from southern California, including 11 men. About half self-identified as Asian; the rest were white or Hispanic. Eight reported they were bilingual. The volunteers were asked to describe directions and recount a scene from a popular sitcom.
After recording and analyzing the speech, the researchers found no disparities according to ethnicity or socioeconomic class. But they did find some differences between the genders.
Women used uptalk more frequently than men did. Their pitch rose higher overall, and the rise began much later in the phrase. The rise in pitch for men tended to plateau, instead of rising higher and higher—especially when they were using uptalk to prevent the listener from interrupting them.
The timing of the rise also depended on the context of the speech for both genders. When the volunteers used uptalk in a standard, simple, declarative sentence, for example, the uptalk started much later in the phrase than if the speaker was asking a question.
The researchers also studied how uptalk varied in different contexts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that people used uptalk all the time when asking a question. But uptalk was used as much as 16 percent of the time in simple, declarative sentences. For example, a SoCal speaker (as they are referred to in the paper) giving directions might say: "Go all the way to the right in the middle where it says Canyon Hills?"—meaning: "Are you following me?"
The fact that women showed greater variability in pitch is consistent with general ideas about gender, says Penelope Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the study. It "conforms to the more general finding that women and girls show greater innovativeness and variability in language use than men and boys, presumably because they are both licensed and expected to be flamboyant, while men and boys have to work to be less expressive in their everyday talk."
Are You Uptalking to Me?
Other studies have also shown that uptalk appears across demographics and gender. "There's plenty of evidence out in the world that the pattern is quite general, and predates the apparent recent uptake by young women," Eckert says. Given the limited sample of volunteers in this study, she cautions against making any grand generalizations about uptalk across different demographic groups.
Indeed, Ritchart says, the sample size isn't representative of the wider population (there were no African Americans, for example). The main goal of the study, she points out, wasn't necessarily to look for demographic disparities, but to analyze uptalk in detail.
Still, the fact that uptalk seems to be common among many Southern Californians means the Valley girl stereotype is just that—a stereotype, says Ritchart, who grew up in Temecula, California, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. While they can come across as ditzy or unassertive, she says, "they're not stupid; they're not timid or anything. It's just how they express themselves."
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