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Linguists explain how to tell statements from questions in Valley Girl talk

Southern California harbors an interesting dialect. Two linguists examine Southern Californian English, in which ordinary sentences sound like questions. (Damian Dovarganes/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Amanda Ritchart is a native speaker of Southern Californian English, the dialect also known as “Valley Girl talk” — you know, the one that’s like totally full of the word “like.”

The dialect’s most recognizable characteristic might be the rise in pitch that speakers use at the end of some sentences. When Ritchart, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California San Diego, says her name, it sounds like a question: “Amanda?”

Valley Girl talk can give the impression that the speaker is unsure of what he or she is saying. Yet Ritchart and her former adviser, Amalia Arvaniti, suggest in one of the first rigorous linguistic studies of the Southern Californian variety of English that speakers are perfectly clear on the difference between a question and a statement.

“You get the stereotype, like, we’re all ditzy over here, because we sound so uncertain, but really, it’s just the way we talk,” said Ritchart, who grew up in Temecula, Calif., southeast of Los Angeles.

The pair recorded two dozen undergraduates — all native Southern Californians — giving directions and retelling a scene from a comedy. They found that about 16 percent of ordinary statements made by their subjects sounded like questions in other varieties of English. A speaker would raise the pitch of his or her voice at the end of the statement, a pattern linguists call “uptalk.” (Click to the left to listen to Ritchart demonstrating uptalk, and read their paper to listen to more examples.)

'Valley Girl' Dialect

AUDIO: Amanda Ritchart gives examples of uptalk found in Southern California.

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SOURCE: Courtesy of Amanda Ritchart.

Yet when the speakers were asking a question, their increase in pitch was more pronounced and would begin earlier in the sentence.

“It may sound to nonnative speakers of that variety that they’re asking questions when they should be making statements, but in reality, they’re making a consistent distinction between the two,” Arvaniti said.

Arvaniti is from Greece, not Southern California. Learning to hear the difference between a question and a statement in Valley Girl talk takes practice for nonnative speakers, she said.

The dialect is usually associated with female speakers — hence the name — but the research, which Ritchart is presenting at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Francisco on Thursday, suggests that uptalk is not limited to women.

The differences in pitch were less exaggerated and less frequent with the men in the study, but they used them, too. The results also show that uptalk is common across ethnicities and social classes.

Arvaniti, who has since moved to the University of Kent in England, said her male students in Southern California would insist that they didn’t use uptalk. They did not want to be seen as feminine.

The new study challenges that perception, along with the assumption that people who speak in Valley Girl talk are unintelligent and insecure.

“These things are arbitrary, and they have to do with who happens to be associated with a particular way of speaking,” Arvaniti said.

Max Ehrenfreund writes for Wonkblog and compiles Wonkbook, a daily policy newsletter. You can subscribe here. Before joining The Washington Post, Ehrenfreund wrote for the Washington Monthly and The Sacramento Bee.

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