Illustration by Alexander Pines, CC' 16

Illustration by Alexander Pines, CC’ 16

Always honoring our mother magazine, The Blue and White, we present another preview from the February 2014 issue, on campus now. Staff Writer Michelle Cheripka, CC ’16, gives us this account of uptalk, or “the linguistic equivalent of passing a joint around.”

“This might be stupid and I don’t know where I’m going with this yet, but—” a classmate makes excuses before launching into an analysis that is neither stupid nor undeveloped. I add a tally to my mental list of linguistic tics and unnecessary prefaces. The list started when I noticed that I typically end statements as questions—otherwise known as uptalk—and as I noticed similar linguistic quirks in other people my age, the list grew.

“Some people have compared [speech patterns] to viruses […] as you’re interacting with more people, the pool of viruses is enlarged,” says Josh Armstrong, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UPenn. “So the novel words or novel turns of phrases will become more prevalent as more people use them. Kind of like a linguistic melting pot of sorts.”

The two metaphors aptly capture two prevalent attitudes towards the way in which Millennials speak: as a virus, our current speech patterns have weakened the grace and force our language once held (or so some argue), but as a melting pot, they draw upon a wide range of sources, expanding the possibilities of communication. One such expansion can be seen in the development of microlanguages.

“[Microlanguages are] whatever meaning two or more agents take and share between them,” Armstrong explains. “As shared past experiences or shared interests overlap, you’re going to get more, and larger, microlanguages. You can think of something like the standardnglish being the state that many people start with—it’s kind of like a default that can then be revised.”

In this view, uptalk does not merely signal a lack of confidence in the speaker; it is potentially a bridge across microlanguages and between people. John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia, states, “Over the past 25 years [uptalk] has become a standard colloquial way of communally making sure everybody has the same sources of information and assumptions.”

He consistently reminds me that some of these patterns may not be new or specific to Millennials—even Bugs Bunny used ‘interesting’ as an adjective instead of choosing a more appropriate word choice. But Professor McWhorter does relay a significant observation: “there is a fundamental aversion to being too pushy.” “Many see [uptalk] as mushy and unconfident,” he says, “but I see a lot of it as the linguistic equivalent of passing a joint around. Modern American English is almost oddly nice. There’s a muffin essence to it underneath all the snark.”

What I had considered evidence of our generation’s inability to commit to anything—even our own beliefs and feelings—might be better seen as a developed understanding of the world around us. As Armstrong points out, we are sensitive to our own relations to others. “People, even if just tacitly or unconsciously, are aware of power dynamics and their speech reflects it. […] Even if you’re not aware of it, there’s a felt sense of power dynamic and you’re negotiating that and your speech is reflecting your uncertainty or your sense of negotiating.”

John McWhorter sees uptalk as our acknowledgement of the complex nature of truth and of argument. “I entertain the idea that there genuinely is a kind of percolation into general consciousness of the porousness of truth, the dangers of certainty. If people are less given to pronouncement these days under a certain age, it could be seen as a triumph of the goal of education to broaden horizons. Education means, etymologically, ‘leading out’—and what one needs to be led out of is not just not knowing what the capital of Bulgaria is, but also out of thinking that serious issues have easy resolutions that everybody is somehow missing.”

Speech patterns are not a the plague; rather, they’re like constructive epidemics. And in their ability to spread rapidly and ubiquitously, our linguistic quirks provide the opportunity to deviate from a common language in order to establish a new one. But I mean, I might be the only one who feels this way …