Down With Upspeak?

It’s everywhere. You can’t escape it. It’s like the invasion of the body snatchers, except they’re not snatching bodies. They’re snatching declarative sentences. Soon, there won’t be any left. Maybe there’ll be a few audio files on some YouTube channel for educational purposes. That’ll be it. Then again, the commissars at YouTube and their Anti-Defamation League henchmen will probably denounce declarative sentences as hate speech and remove them from the Internet.

I’m talking about Upspeak, that thoroughly annoying habit people have of raising their voices at the end of sentences as if they were asking a question. It used to be confined to Southern California but has spread across North America, from Montreal to Tijuana and just about every point in between. My students, including those from Long Island, inflect their voices upward. My colleagues do it. The waitress at the Albanian cafe across the street does it–in an Albanian accent, no less. I listened to a podcast the other day from the Wharton School of Business, and the two experts interviewed did it. Thankfully, their interviewer, a Brit, did not. He spoke English.

How did this happen? How did Upspeak invade the American-speaking world just as Asian carp devour the Mississippi?

I blame the Beach Boys. Really, I do. Let me explain.

Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were America’s answer to the Beetles, the Stones, and the “British Invasion.” Remember that? Their music, especially those surfing tunes from the early sixties, evoked a laid-back, hang ten lifestyle. Their voices embodied that lifestyle. It was an “I’m okay, you’re okay,” transactional analysis world where flowers had power. This fit perfectly with Herbert Marcuse’s “make love, not war” ideology, and soon everyone was feeling good vibrations, embracing the Age of Aquarius, and casting judgmental behavior–an outmoded characteristic of their bourgeois elders–out the window.

The linguistic equivalent of this was a non-accented, non-confrontational, non-judgmental, and non-declarative way of speaking for which the open-mouthed, Southern California dialect of American English was perfect. It had the additional benefit of being inclusive and, later, non-gendered. After all, declarative sentences thrust at you like penises. Behind it all was the desire not to offend anyone and to show how sensitive and free-thinking the speaker was. It was an act of liberation from oppressive speech patterns like Bostonian English, Brooklynese, Southern drawl, and Western twang. Inflected endings were an inevitable byproduct of this larger cultural shift, especially among youth and young adults.

Where does this leave us today? I would join the maître d’ in Ferris Bueller in weeping for the future, but the problem exists now. So, I have developed two tactics in my counterinsurgency campaign, both obnoxious.

First, when I encounter Upspeak, I treat it for what it really is: a question. For instance, last week a woman introduced herself by telling me her name and that she worked in the Compliance Department of an investment bank. She spoke in Upspeak. So, I replied, “Well, I really don’t know. Do you work in the Compliance Department?”

I said obnoxious, didn’t I? That was your trigger warning.

Second, I emphasize declarative statements by dropping my voice in a slightly exaggerated way at the end of sentences. In my mind, this tells the listener that what he has just heard is a statement, not a question. I have discovered, however, that sometimes people interpret this as my being mad, which causes them to raise their voices even higher and then get defensive or upset, because they believe they have offended me.

I don’t get offended easily. Annoyed, yes. Peeved, occasionally. Offended, not so much, although I think this has increased in direct proportion to the amount of time I spend on Facebook and Twitter, where you can find all manner of silliness, and YouTube, where pretty soon the only declarative sentences will be about pimple popping.

No wonder people spend their time hunched over their phones, transfixed. Who wants to go through the trouble of having a real conversation?

It’s just too exhausting?

Haven’t had enough (a question, although rhetorical)? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: Take the B train to Brighton Beach. Think of the adventure (and borscht)!

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