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Uptalk?

One of comedian Adam Hill’s better-known skits is about the way it sounds like every sentence an Australian says sounds like they are asking a question – apparently, they have so little confidence in themselves, that they have to hedge their bets. You can see a clip here.

However, as funny as this observation is, is this really why people tend to use a higher pitch at the end of a sentence? This is just one question that Erez Levon decided to find out.

Known as High Rising Terminals, or HRTs, this rise in intonation that occurs at the end of phrases is well-documented across various dialects of English, including the aforementioned Australian English, as well as in Canada and the US. It is used to perform multiple functions in the discourse, including showing that the speaker has not yet finished their turn, and marking in-group solidarity. However, there has been considerably less documentation on its pragmatic function in UK dialects.

Using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods, Levon looked at recordings from forty-two of his undergraduate students, to see how often this feature was used, and in what contexts. The students were asked to do twenty to thirty minutes of recordings in small groups – some of which were mixed sex, some of which were not. The recordings were then transcribed, and the instances of HRT annotated and then coded by speaker.

There was a huge variation in how many HRTs participants used; some only used the feature as few as 64 times, some as many as 317. Across over 7,000 instances of HRTs, Levon found some interesting patterns. For one, contrary to stereotypes, everyone in the group used HRT, regardless of gender. While the usage rates ranged from 3.5% of phrases up to 41.2%, there was no one who never or always used it. Furthermore, whilst women regularly used them regardless of the gender composition of the group, men used them considerably more in mixed-sex settings. In fact, men used them more even than the women did in these groups – something that may surprise those who associate it with female speech.

Men and women were also significantly more likely to use the feature in the context of describing something or recounting a narrative when in these groups, as opposed to giving a fact or opinion. They were also both far more likely to use HRT on information that was new to a conversation, rather than going over something that was already a given.


So then I discovered a formula to figure out any prime number!

When Levon did his qualitative analysis, however, he found some even more fascinating data. There was definitely a gendered difference in the way that men and women employed HRTs in a narrative.  Women used HRT to lessen their threat to other people wanting to participate in the conversation, but they also used it to maintain control of the narrative. Men, meanwhile, used HRT to signal useful and interesting information in their narrative, and so control the spotlight on themselves, so to speak.

Of course, there were some omissions from the study – there were no non-white, lower class, or LGBT participants, who of course often differ from their straight white middle-class peers in the way they use such features.  Indeed, the gendered aspect of its use could be very different amongst LGBT participants, and hence worthy of further study. What is clear though, is that Adam Hills is wrong – people don’t use HRTs because they are uncertain. If anything, they indicate just how certain they are!

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Levon, Erez (2016). Gender, interaction and intonational variation: The discourse functions of High Rising Terminals in London. Journal of Sociolinguistics 20 (2), 133-63.

doi.10.1111/josl.12182

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

Posted on: Saturday, August 26, 2017 - 12:06

Buffy the very good Vampire Slayer


Sociolinguistics is all about how language is being used around us everyday, and where better to look than TV? Susan Reichelt and Mercedes Durham did just this, investigating how linguistic devices are used in Buffy The Vampire Slayer to strengthen characterisation.  Buffyis an American TV show that ran from 1997-2003 and which currently boasts over three million viewers on Netflix.  It has a huge and dedicated fanbase, some of whom have accurately transcribed every episode online.  Reichelt and Durham used these transcripts to research how the main characters used intensifiers (words like very, really, totally – also called ‘adverbs of degree’) to modify adjectives, as in ‘He’s really silly’ and ‘That’s so cool!’ 


Their research showed that intensifiers are sometimes used to indicate character ‘type’.  For example, the character Cordelia is initially portrayed as a popularity-seeking character who is opposed to Buffy.  She uses an extremely high rate of so, found in previous research to be a new ‘young’ choice of intensifier, and therefore indicating that she is a trendsetter. Cordelia could be regarded as the polar opposite to Willow, Buffy’s best friend, who is a brainy ‘nerd’.  However, as the series progress both characters undergo changes that can be charted through their use of intensifiers.  In the first series, Cordelia uses so much more than Willow, signalling her coolness. However, as the series develop, Willow begins to use so more whilst Cordelia uses it less.  Cordelia also stops using totally, a stereotypical ‘trendy’ intensifier.  These changes reflect changes in their characters, with Willow becoming more confident and assertive and Cordelia more serious as she moves away from the popular girls and closer to Buffy’s group.



                        Different characters, different intensifiers........


The male characters were found to be different to the females in their use of intensifiers.  They use veryas opposed to so, with the English character, Giles, using very the most often, seemingly indicating his Britishness. He also frequently uses quite and this also seems to fit into his stereotypical Britishness:  he dresses in tweed, drinks a lot of tea and often comments on how incomprehensible American culture is to him!  Interestingly, Spike, who is also English, is presented as the opposite: a rebellious punk vampire, who wears leathers and has no manners.  However, a punk is still a British stereotype and sure enough, it is both Giles and Spike who use very, quite and bloody at a significantly higher rate than other characters.



Buffy herself shows no preference in her use of intensifiers, maybe deliberately so on the scriptwriters’ part.  By disassociating her character from the speech patterns of others, like Cordelia, Buffy is marked as ‘different’ and not helpless and ‘air-headed’.  Instead of using a particular intensifier, Buffy seems to be marked as innovative by ‘inventing’ the adjective following it, as in “It’s been a very slay-heavy summer.”

So, it seems that TV shows use linguistic devices creatively for characterisation.  In Buffy, intensifiers are used to mark where a character is from, their gender, their relationships with others and also how their personality develops. 

Wow! Isn’t language so totallyinteresting?

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Reichelt, Susan and Mercedes Durham (2017) Adjective intensification as a means of characterization: Portraying in-group membership and Britishness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Journal of English Linguistics 45(1): 60-87.


DOI: 10.1177/0075424216669747


This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Posted on: Thursday, August 10, 2017 - 13:09

Good morning customer, how may I help you?

If you’ve ever gone to get a takeaway drink from Starbucks, you’re probably aware that they like to take your name and write it on the cup. If you’re someone whose name is even vaguely unusual or uncommon, you’re probably also aware of how infuriating it is when the poor barista mangles your name when trying to write it on the side. “Why do they even bother?”, you may have thought in such situations.


Whilst not entirely related to coffee shops, Anna Kristina Hultgren of the Open University looked into the politeness strategies of people working in call centres. Her aim was to compare the best practices with the actual interactions that call centre agents do. In particular, she noted an increasing trend of using vocatives – that exact trait where people constantly call you by your name – and considered how this could be accounted for.


Customer service was originally defined as being a “face-to-face” interaction, which orientated around what the customer desired from it, and the server’s obligation to fulfil the customer’s wishes. As Hultgren notes, the rise of call centres has changed this somewhat, along with what she calls the rationalisation of customer service interactions. This involves them being efficient, predictable, controlled, and calculable. (So yes, when you’re ringing up to query your phone bill and the person on the other end sounds like a robot, it is because they have to follow these four principles.) However, this still needs to be balanced with the fairly basic task of treating the caller like a human being. So how does this work?





                Madam, much as I would LOVE to spend another hour hearing about how your geraniums are doing, can you please just tell me what is wrong with your bill?

Hultgren looked at one particular call centre in Scotland, which specialised in pensions. She looked at the manuals that were provided to agents on training, and then researched the working practices of the call centre. This included on-site observations of the agents at work, a corpus of 79 call centre transactions, and interviews with call agents as well as their managers. Hultgren looked at 21 different rules that applied to the customer service interactions, dividing them into transactional  rules (ones which focused on the call being efficient and saving money) and interactional rules (ones which focused on the customer care element).


Naturally, given the rationalisation of the interactions, Hultgren found that, where the opportunity arose, transactional rules took priority. Of the interactional rules, the ones that were most frequently used were the aforementioned vocatives – giving the customer a “verbal handshake” by asking for their name, and then using it regularly throughout the interaction.


Why is this? Some of the other interactional rules included small talk and personalised greetings. The problem with small talk is the possibility that the agent will lose control of the conversation, and risk being too inefficient. Meanwhile, personalising greetings requires a lot of effort on the part of the agent, which they may not be able to expend when they have targets to meet. However, there is still the requirement to personalise the call, and the easiest way to do this is to use the customer’s name. Therefore, the use of vocatives sticks. 

Hultgren theorises that this shows a new politeness strategy, called rationalised politeness, which has emerged from the economic, social and technological conditions of such interactions. When the overall goal is to make money, and the lack of face-to-face communication constricts the personal aspect of the conversation, there are limited ways for agents to engage with the customers.

It remains to be seen how much further this new form of politeness will spread. But if you're annoyed with Starbucks getting your name wrong every time, consider that you may well have to get used to it – this trend seems to be here to stay.

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Hultgren, Anna Kristina  (2017). Vocatives as rationalized politeness: Theoretical insights from emerging norms in call centre service encounters. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 21(1), 90-111.

doi. 10.1111/josl.12224
This summary was written by Marina Merryweather.

Posted on: Monday, July 24, 2017 - 17:34