Mark Palmer

Warning: upspeak can wreck your career

A caution to my daughter that’s worth passing on

Warning: upspeak can wreck your career
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A few weeks ago, I accompanied my daughter to an Open Day at Roehampton College, where she is hoping to start a teacher training course in September. I enjoyed it — and was impressed by the broad mix of motivated young men and women who, if all goes well, will soon be teaching the next generation of primary school children.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the co-ordinator said she wanted to offer a few tips about the interview process that would begin once all the applications have been submitted. It turned out she had only one main tip: avoid upspeak.

She stressed the point vigorously. Indeed, her message for twentysomethings like my daughter seemed to be that it’s perfectly acceptable to turn up in torn trousers with safety pins through their noses and carrying cans of extra-strength lager but they must at all costs dispense with what officially is called the high rising terminal (HRT), otherwise known as that modern plague that does its best to kill off the spoken word by turning every statement into a question and ending every sentence with a rising inflection? Just like that, actually.

Alicia Silverstone in 90's movie Clueless Photo: Paramount/Kobal
Of course, it’s tempting to assume that upspeak is a condition uniquely affecting young people, a phase that will soon pass — like acne or putting up posters of One Direction. In fact, it’s far more serious than that.

Tune into the Today programme and most mornings you’ll hear adult interviewees answering questions with statements packaged as questions. Junior civil servants, council officials and health workers seem particularly susceptible. What’s more, upspeak seems impervious to background, social mobility, money.

Just as frightening is the ever-increasing predilection of grown-ups to break up sentences with redundant fillers such as ‘like,’ ‘whatever’ and that old favourite ‘you know’. So the recounting of a Friday night might come out as: ‘We like thought we’d see that film about slavery and I was like totally not sure I was up for it and so I like asked my boyfriend and he like said, you know, whatever? In the end we like you know stayed in and ordered a pizza?’

There’s a stream of consciousness there — but not a lot of authority. It’s as if the speaker has deliberately adopted a tentative tone, going out of her way to appear flaky while at the same time hoping the person to whom she is speaking will empathise with her and keep the conversation going by also saying something that ends with a statement but which sounds like a question.

While writing this, I have just taken a call from the press office of Visit Orlando. The woman at the other end of the telephone was English, not American, and extremely polite. As I do a lot of travel writing, she wanted to excite me about Orlando. She sounded a little nervous as she told me how the big push this year is to attract families to the Sunshine State and the more hesitant she became the more pronounced was her upspeak.

This makes me think that HRT belongs in the politically correct camp. A rising intonation is a linguistic trick to make the world seem a more inclusive sort of place. You summon up the courage to tell it like it is, expressing a personal — and perhaps even controversial — opinion, but couch it as a question just in case it might cause offence. Keep everyone on side. Don’t alienate your audience. Just bore them rigid instead.

But there’s hope. A survey by a company called Pearson in Australia (a bastion of HRT, due in part to long-running TV shows such as Neighbours and Home and Away) has concluded that upspeak can damage people’s careers. This is because when looking for a job or seeking promotion, upspeakers come across as if always questioning their own judgments, which in turn makes them sound uncertain, tentative, weak.

I would go further. Upspeaking tells the listener that you don’t really believe in yourself or in what you are saying — and that you badly seek approval. Hardly attributes to inspire confidence in a potential employer.

What’s undeniable is that HRT has spread like a virus across the globe. No one knows how to stop it and there is disagreement among experts over how it started in the first place. Some people point a finger at California’s ‘Valley girls’ in the 1980s, while others think it came from New Zealand. It’s also true that some UK dialects, especially mid-Ulster and Belfast, have a lot in common with HRT — but that’s a different issue.

Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that benefits claimants should be able to speak English if they are to receive government money. I wonder what he means exactly. Making yourself understood is one thing, speaking proper English is another.