Sample Essay

Speaking up about the HRT

 
The expressions ‘upspeak’, ‘uptalk’, ‘Valley Patois’ and ‘Australian Rising Intonation’ are all alternative labels for the linguistic phenomenon High Rising Terminal, which can be abbreviated to HRT. Less well-known than the phrase RP (Received Pronunciation), the HRT denotes a way of speaking that has received much attention in recent years and is the subject of this brief essay.

So what exactly is it? The High Rising Terminal is a feature of spoken English in which statements are uttered with a rise in end intonation, like a yes / no question. A speaker giving directions to a railway station might say, “Go straight ahead for about 100 metres”. Following conventional statement intonation, the speaker would lower the pitch of their voice in the word ‘metres’. In contrast, rising intonation arguably makes a sentence sound tentative or even interrogative, at odds with its statement function.

The presence of the HRT in speech may imply insecurity on the part of the speaker because the type of rising intonation linked to yes / no questions is based on the speaker not knowing something (hence the question!). For this reason, the use of the HRT has prompted criticism from those who feel that it sends a mixed signal to listeners and make people sound like they are not sure of themselves. On the other hand, some linguists suggest its use facilitates conversation by making the speaker sound friendlier, and has a positive effect on a listener. It might also be argued that the High Rising Terminal empowers the speaker; the rising intonation suggests that the speaker may have more to say on a subject, so interruption is discouraged. In this sense, the use of upward inflection in statements may be more assertive than it might at first appear.

Whilst it is generally accepted that the HRT is a relatively recent phenomenon, we cannot give an exact date for when it first became a feature of spoken English. Neither can we say with any certainty where it originated. The strongest claims for geographical origin are for New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, particularly the west coast.

The HRT is particularly prevalent among young people, women and those from lower social classes, but it is also a feature of national and regional dialects. It is common in the countries mentioned in the previous paragraph and in some regions of the British Isles. In fact, it may have been around for longer than we think.

It is arguably easier to ascribe a ‘meaning’ to the use of the HRT when we consider demographic factors such as age, gender or social class. For example, the increasing frequency with which young people use this form of intonation may be partly a consequence of its exposure and popularization on television and in the media in recent decades. Furthermore, its prevalence among Australian women might support the hypothesis that it represents an implicit expression of insecurity by members of this group in relation to a dominant masculine culture in Australia. Similar theories of insecurity in relation to dominant groups might be advanced to account for the prevalence of the HRT among other demographics (for example, young people, people from ethnic minorities and people from lower socio-economic groups).

The phenomenon of the High Rising Terminal has sparked lively debate. Some find High Rising intonation merely irritating whilst others, including celebrities and academics, have been openly critical, even scathing. British comedian and writer Stephen Fry added the HRT to a list of his pet hates on the BBC show Room 101. Yet whatever we feel about the merits or drawbacks of the HRT, it represents just one example of the way the English language changes and evolves though time and will continue to evolve.

 
 

Sources

 

Crystal, D. (1995), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
 Fletcher, Janet and Harrington, Jonathan (2001), High-Rising Terminals and Fall-Rise Tunes in Australian English, Phonetica, International Journal of Phonetic Science, Vol. 58. No.4, 2001. Retrieved November 27, 2007, from http://content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Aktion=ShowFulltext&ArtikelNr=46176&Ausgabe=227296&ProduktNr=224275

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