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Overturning the Myth of Valley Girl Speak

Are you still making fun of young women for talking like Valley Girls?

Do you assume that because their statements end in a hesitant, rising quaver (“My name is Brittany?”) they are shallow, scattered or uncertain? Even that they sound — how to say this politely? is there any way? — intellectually your inferior?

Seriously?

For years, sociologists and linguists have studied that lilt, referring to it as “uptalk” or “high-rising intonation.” They found its presence in large pockets throughout the English-speaking world — Australia? England? New Zealand? Some date it to the 1950s, others say it is centuries old.

In America, it became popularized during the 1980s as Valley Girl Speak, presumably inspired by Frank Zappa’s hit 1982 song “Valley Girl,” a derisive reference to the young white women of California’s San Fernando Valley who spoke it as their own dialect. Films like “Heathers” and “Clueless” perpetuated and parodied the stereotype of the speech and its purported lifestyle.

But scholars have found that the rising inflection can suggest a range of nuanced meanings in different geographical areas and conversational contexts. Another myth busted: its use is not exclusive to young women.

Now researchers at the University of California, San Diego, who wanted to learn more about when and how local speakers use uptalk, have done a close acoustical analysis of 23 Southern Californians from diverse backgrounds, ages 18 to 22, including 11 men. Trading the derogatory label Valley Girl Speak for the relatively neutral “SoCal English,” they found that both men and women often use uptalk, although with some gender-based differences.

“Men don’t think they do it, but they do,” said Amanda Ritchart, a graduate student and co-author of the project, which was presented earlier this month at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

The researchers gave the speakers two tasks: using a map to give directions to a listener, and describing a sitcom clip they had just watched.

Generally, the women did use uptalk almost twice as often as men, with their rises beginning later in a sentence and hitting higher pitches. But even in making a simple, declarative statement such as, “My appointment is at 9 o’clock,” which a non-uptalker (downtalker?) might end with a falling intonation, the men and women in this group used rises with similar frequency.

When giving directions, a non-uptalker would use a declarative sentence, without a rising inflection. But uptalkers did use rises, as if they were implicitly asking the listener to confirm that they were being understood: “Go all the way to the right in the middle where it says Canyon Hills?” Both the men and women in the study used uptalk 100 percent of the time in these so-called “confirming” statements.

Uptalk, the researchers found, could also serve a strategic purpose through a technique known as “floor-holding,” in which the speaker, anticipating an interruption by the listener, tries to stave it off by using a rising tone at the end of a statement. Floor-holding is the vocal equivalent of holding up your palm, as if to say, “Wait, I’m not finished!”

In the study, women spoke with the floor-holding rise nearly 60 percent of the time: “O.K., so go toward Warren” (pronounced as a high-rising “Waa—REN?”). Men used it only 28 percent of the time, tending instead to maintain steady voices, in a plateau. Amalia Arvaniti, a co-author of the study who is now head of the English language and linguistics department at the University of Kent in England, said, “It could indicate that young women were generally interrupted more than men and so it’s a defense mechanism.”

Because the research analyzed vocal patterns, it did not address whether men are using uptalk because they picked it up from women. Moreover, linguists and sociologists disagree about the extent to which, at least in Southern California, it began as girltalk. Women do appear to use it more than men, although there’s no hard proof for that. Nor is there consensus about when men began using it, though certainly in popular entertainment, women have been ridiculed far more often than men for uptalking.

“The first person I even noticed as an unusually frequent uptalker was one of my oldest son’s male friends, in 1987,” noted Mark Liberman, a linguistics expert at the University of Pennsylvania. He said this latest research offers “a careful study of usage patterns among young Californians in San Diego, in two well-defined contexts,” but in the main, “I’m waiting for evidence that there’s any real connection to Southern California, or that things have changed in the past 40 years or so.”

Researchers continue to puzzle over the myriad relationships between gender and speech. Last year, Thomas J. Linneman, a sociologist at The College of William and Mary, studied 100 episodes of the television show “Jeopardy!,” noting that male and female contestants used uptalk, over all, 37 percent of the time. (That may be due, in part, to the show’s requirement that quiz answers be presented in question form.)

In a study published last year in Gender and Society, he found that, “Men use uptalk more when surrounded by women contestants, and when correcting a woman contestant after she makes an incorrect response.” He concluded, “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.”

Dr. Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania said that some studies suggest that uptalk has been used by the more powerful person in hierarchical exchanges, such as those between employer and employee, teacher and student, or doctor and patient. An office assistant, for example, would not be likely to say to the boss: “Are you following me on this? Do you understand what I’m saying?” In such instances, uptalk, rather than suggesting insecurity, may in fact signal confidence, paternalism, coercion or faux conviviality.

There’s even the possibility that uptalk is now so widely used that its disdainful stereotype will disappear, its intonations lingering as a kind of regional accent, the California version of a Southern drawl — although some researchers note that American uptalkers are not confined to the West Coast.

Perhaps, suggest scholars, some negative perceptions of uptalk may be driven by generational divides.

Penelope Eckert, a linguistics professor at Stanford, wrote in an email, “Language and society change, and a lot of these patterns that older people stigmatize sound perfectly natural and O.K. to younger people.”

Ms. Ritchart, who is 25, grew up in Southern California and considers herself a native uptalker. She heard her mother, who was also raised in Southern California, speak it, though not her father, who is from the Midwest. One theory for the acceptance of uptalk is that a generation has grown up being comfortable with it.

“I never thought people who were doing it were dumb, because I do it too, and I’m not dumb,” Ms. Ritchart said. “I am getting a Ph.D.”