Robin T. Lakoff: “What’s Up With Upspeak?”

The linguistic phenomenon known as “upspeak” has long been linked to a broader pattern of gender relations, thanks to the work of UC Berkeley’s Robin T. Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics.


Here’s an experiment. Tell someone the day of the week, e.g. “It’s Monday.” As you speak, take note of how your voice rises and falls. If your pitch bends down as you approach the end of the sentence, then you are using “downspeak,” or what linguists refer to as “falling intonation.” If your pitch increases steadily as you approach the end of the sentence, rising up toward the end of the word “Monday,” then you used “high rising terminal,” or “upspeak.”

Recently, a robust debate has emerged about the meaning attached to these two types of speech patterns, and upspeak in particular. On one side stand upspeak’s detractors, those who argue that ending a declarative statement—“Today is Monday,” for example—on a high note typically reserved for questions—“Is it Monday?”—betrays a speaker’s lack of confidence and willingness to submit to their interlocutor. Indeed, some academic researchers have linked rising intonation to a speaker’s sense of inferiority. A 1986 study of upspeak use among speakers of Australian English, for example, discovered a relationship between intonation patterns and social class, and found that middle-class speakers used upspeak considerably less often than did working-class speakers, the latter of which, the study argued, did so to signal their lower status.

On the other side of the debate are those who view upspeak as more innocuous, and even as a sign of an individual’s superior and innovative communication skills. A 1991 study of upspeak use among members of a University of Texas sorority found that upspeak often appeared in statements made by more senior and more powerful members of the group. Another study, based on business and academic meetings conducted in English in Hong Kong, found that meeting chairs—in other words, the most powerful people in the room—used rising intonation three to seven times more often than did their subordinates. These findings suggest that rising tones, far from a show of inferiority, can be used to assert dominance by exerting pressure on listening participants to respond and establish common ground.

A more recent study situates itself somewhere in between the two sides of the debate. It found that the most important factor that determines how upspeak is interpreted is the context in which it takes place. For example, participants who listened to an alleged “expert” in politics using upspeak did not hear it as a sign of incompetence or lack of confidence. However, participants who listened to an alleged non-expert use upspeak while discussing topics ranging from pop culture to politics did express belief in the speaker’s incompetence. Context, in other words, counts.

The debate has become exacerbated by the fact that upspeak is most often associated with female speakers, which has led women to become the main targets of jokes, criticism, and speech coaching efforts. Many of those who want women to coach themselves out of their upspeaking habits operate from the assumption that women who practice upspeak in public are less likely to be taken seriously. Upspeak’s defenders argue that the connection between rising intonation and lack of confidence is socially constructed, a traditional and even outdated linguistic norm produced and policed by men in order to deprive women of legitimacy. According to this view, encouraging women to undo their upspeak or alter the way they speak in general lends credibility to the prejudiced belief that “women’s speech” is inferior speech.

As commentators continue to disagree over whether people should reform or embrace upspeak, it’s worthwhile to look at the social scientific research that has gone into studying rising intonation as both an objective and subjective phenomenon. Robin T. Lakoff, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, made waves in the field of sociolinguistics in the early 1970s when she became the first linguist to incorporate gender into the study of language. As an active participant in the second wave feminist movement taking place at the same time as she was pursuing her PhD, Lakoff and some of her student colleagues decided to make an intervention in their discipline. “We wanted our grammar to incorporate into its linguistic component everything that you need to know about why a particular utterance was made the way it was made,” she explained in an interview.

As a self-described “rebellious Chomskyist,” Lakoff began to think about the relationship between identity and public discourse, and about gender in particular. How did being a woman or man affect one’s use of language, both in form and content? In what ways did gender stereotypes and context—private, public, professional, casual—expand or limit the linguistic opportunities available to women and men? What challenges did women and men confront when they transgressed into traditionally masculine and feminine linguistic territory, respectively?

To answer these questions, Lakoff had to listen, and listen closely. She took notes on conversations she overheard between friends, colleagues, and strangers in places ranging from elevators to restaurants and anywhere else her perceptive ear could go undetected. Her goal was to capture her subjects’ most authentic discursive selves, instead of the person they might become if asked to engage in a conversation under an academic’s watchful eye. “You can’t just trail someone around with a tape recorder,” Lakoff warned. Not only would doing so prohibit you from catching someone in a spontaneous speech act, but, she added, “it’ll make you incredibly unpopular.”

The research Lakoff conducted as a professional eavesdropper served as the foundation for her seminal article “Language and Woman’s Place,” published in 1973 and expanded into a book in 1975. In the article, Lakoff argued that gender stereotypes conditioned how women spoke—and were spoken of—in American society. She showed how uncertainty, triviality, and lack of clarity and force distinguished “women’s language” from that of men, a distinction that reflected prevailing “rules of politeness” that governed female behavior more broadly. She identified women’s preference for empty adjectives (“divine,” “adorable”), tag questions (“John is here, isn’t he?”), and weak expletives (“oh dear,” “oh fudge”), and compared this to men’s preference for neutral adjectives (“great,” “terrific”), direct statements, and stronger swear words (“damn,” “shit”).

Combined, these linguistic forms ensured that a woman presented as a “lady”: agreeable and polite, someone who offered rather than imposed ideas, knowledge, and demands on a listener, even when directly communicating information was her stated goal. Lakoff concluded that pressure to conform to the “lady” image—that of a sexually tame person who engages in trivial matters and remains dependent on male chivalry—limits women’s linguistic options and “systemically [denies them] access to power.”

One of the most common features to show up in Lakoff’s study of “women’s language” was the frequent use of upspeak for both canonical yes-or-no questions (e.g. “Is it Monday?”) and declarative sentences (e.g. “It is Monday”). It is a linguistic truism that all American speakers—both male and female—either employ upspeak or invert the subject and first auxiliary verb (“It is Wednesday” becomes “Is it Wednesday?”; “John can cook spaghetti” becomes “Can John cook spaghetti?”) in order to signal to a listener that they are asking a question. Questions, by definition, are asked almost always in order to receive information that is lacking. As such, they hint that the speaker has lower standing relative to the other party. “Under most conditions,” Lakoff says, “questions put the questioner down. If you need something from someone, you are dependent on that person. You need that person.” Upspeak and subject-auxiliary verb inversion, therefore, are the two main techniques that a speaker can use to ask a question and, by extension, signal his/her dependency on a listener.

While standard grammatical and linguistic norms prevent subject-auxiliary verb inversion from being used outside of yes-or-no questions (the verb “can” in the sentence “Can John cook spaghetti” comes first if and only if the sentence is posed as a question), rising intonation, or upspeak, can be applied to questions and non-questions alike (for example, to “John can cook spaghetti?” and “John can cook spaghetti”) without breaking any grammatical or linguistic rules.

But why do women tend to embrace upspeak’s dual uses more often than do men? The answer that Lakoff came up with at the time, and the one that she stands by to this day, is that women train themselves—both voluntarily and involuntarily—to use rising intonation in certain contexts to protect themselves from accusations of “bossiness” and “bitchiness.” By blunting a declarative sentence’s intended force, upspeak allows women to meet what Lakoff argues are two conflicting demands: to provide information with confidence, but do so in a non-imposing, dependent, non-bossy, “lady-like” way. According to Lakoff, “Bossy people tell you how it is. Bossy people say, ‘Today is Monday!’” (spoken with fallen intonation as she pounds her hand on table). “If you want to be non-bossy you say ‘Today is Monday’ (spoken with rising intonation), meaning, ‘I know it’s Monday, but I don’t want to be pushy with it.’”

Like all self-protective devices, upspeak and other forms of “woman’s language” can easily be misunderstood as a sign of a woman’s lack of strength, weakness, and even incompetence. In “Language and Woman’s Place,” Lakoff asks her reader to imagine a female advertising executive speaking at a conference. The executive, Lakoff writes, would likely raise eyebrows if she communicated her approval of a certain idea by using the expression “What a divine idea!” instead of the more neutral “What a terrific idea!” But jettisoning protective armor comes with its own risk, too. In her article, Lakoff notes how young girls who “talk rough” like young boys would normally be ostracized or scolded by their parents. As the saying goes, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Since the publication of “Language and Woman’s Place,” Lakoff has continued to study how language reflects power imbalances in American society. Most recently, she has been applying her research on “woman’s language” and perceptions of women’s public discourse to studying the media’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s most recent presidential bid. Lakoff points out that the dominant critiques of Clinton’s behavior—from men and women alike—have more to do with form than with content. Tone, appearance, and communicative style have become the main categories through which commentators have scrutinized her public appearances, a fact that suggests to Lakoff that what irks the media the most about Clinton is her challenge to the norms that have governed American public discourse up until the present day. “All of the rules of public rhetoric were, since Aristotle, devised by men, until recently,” Lakoff says. “So the rules about how to be a public person have all been devised by what’s natural for men, what’s easier for men, what men can understand.”

Clinton, Lakoff points out, seems to be aware of the dilemma that her move into the most public realm of civil society poses. A joke Clinton made recently about being a veteran grey-hair dyer accomplished two things at once: it addressed some people’s fears that she is “too old” to run for office (a criticism that is rarely leveled against her older Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, Lakoff notes) by assuring them that she will never look the part, and placated those who question her competence by invoking her grey hair as evidence of professional experience. “She’s learning to be very, very careful before she opens her mouth,” Lakoff says.

Image: Freeman-Woolpert

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