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Annoying Speech Habits: Is Upspeak a Problem for Young Women?

Is My Daughter’s Upspeak A Problem?

Our daughter is a sophomore in college. She is smart, works hard, and we’re very proud of her. There’s just, like, this, like, one thing? that, like? drives us nuts? The way she and most of her bright, accomplished female friends talk hits my ears like fingernails down a chalkboard. They’ve all been infected with a virulent conversational virus that is raging through the young American female population and shows no sign of abating.

What Is Upspeak? And Is It A Problem?

Linguists call it upspeak or uptalk, the voice pattern that takes a simple declarative sentence and puts an upward inflection on the final word, ending it with interrogative intonation, making uptalk statements sound like questions. “My logic midterm? was, like, broken into two parts? and it was, like, really complicated?” Uptalkers raise their voices every couple words and a simple sentence starts to sound like a series of questions. Throw a few “likes” in that sentence, and your Midwestern college honors student suddenly sounds more like Moon Unit Zappa and her Valley Girl cohorts from the ‘80s.

Why does upspeak bother me so much? Part of it, I guess, goes back to my former life as a litigator. I learned in trial advocacy to strip all those verbal tics (such as “um” and “ah”) from my speech, as they are an undisciplined habit which often distracts and annoys the people listening to you. People judge you by the way you speak, and you want your words and voice to reflect that you are a capable, intelligent, credible person.

So maybe this is just my problem, merely another sign that I am turning into a cranky old woman. After all, these young people don’t even care about ending sentences with a preposition! But when I hear a young woman uptalking, she sounds tentative, hesitant, and unsure of herself. It is difficult to focus on the substance or content of what she is actually saying. I worry that other adults, such as prospective employers, will be equally annoyed and draw unfair conclusions about my daughter. Who wants their project manager, or electrical engineer, or investment advisor to, like, represent them? when they, like, sound like this?

Why Are Girls Saying Like Too Much?

Linguists studying this speech pattern aren’t sure exactly how it began. But they cite the influence of immigrants, television programs from countries such as England and Ireland where these patterns are prevalent, and of course, the infamous Valley Girl. Some speech coaches believe that upspeak is a connective way of speaking, a way of “checking in with your listener” and making sure they are following along with what you’re saying. They also note that using upspeak establishes a tentative tone so that if your statement meets with criticism or disapproval, you can quickly backtrack and retract it without sounding like you are completely changing your opinion. I get it. I understand that a young woman might use her voice and intonation to connect and to offer opinions while not sounding too abrasive or confrontational.

Others argue that criticism of what is a predominantly female speech pattern is an unfair “policing” of young women’s voices, and that men have other stylistic speech patterns that don’t get nearly this level of scrutiny. My own young feminist says that women shouldn’t have to sound like “some old white dude” to be taken seriously. Maybe so. But I would hate to be passed over for a job that I wanted and for which I was qualified because I reminded the interviewer of his thirteen-year-old granddaughter.

My daughter insists that she can control her voice when she needs to. And maybe she’ll outgrow it, like that lisp she had in first grade. (Side note: that required two years of expensive speech therapy.) All I know is that her hero, her feminist icon, agrees with ME. On the long drive home from college last spring, we listened to Tina Fey reading “Bossy Pants,” in which she says this to today’s young women. “Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, `I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?’ Make statements, with your actions and your voice.” Preach it, Tina, preach.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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