Was that a question? Belfast Upspeak

Albert Tower

Albert Tower, Belfast (Wikimedia)

“Belfast upspeak” describes the upward inflection you find in Belfast English (and perhaps Northern Irish accents generally). In a nutshell, upspeak is the tendency to go up at the end of sentences? So everything sounds a bit like a question? At least to American ears?

Upspeak obviously isn’t confined to Belfast or Northern Ireland. It also seems common in Northern English and Scottish accents (Liverpool perhaps being the most famous example of this). And it has made headway in the US, as in the classic Valley Girl accent (“I was driving to the mall? To buy a bikini?”)*

But it’s in Ulster where upspeak strikes me as the frequent and systematic. In a study of the intonation of different accents, for example, the researchers found an upward inflection in Belfast of over 83% of declarative statements. In London, this percentage was exactly 0%!

To give you a sense of Belfast upspeak, check out this video**. It’s a long clip, so I’d recommend hopping around a bit to find various interviews (which start about a minute in):

The challenge for upspeak is comprehensibility. Belfast is already a notoriously tricky accent to parse thanks to its unusual system of allophones (the word “man” in popular Belfast nearly rhymes with General American “lawn;” the word “bag,” on the other hand, almost rhymes with GenAm “beg”). Upspeak no doubt furthers the potential for confusion.

What’s interesting is that, as per the study I linked to above, Belfast English relies on intonation very little to create meaning. Why, then, do some accents require different types of intonation to communicate? And why do others (e.g. Belfast) not require this?


*Important note: “upspeak” or “uptalk” is often used to refer to different types of intonational patterns. California uptalk is probably a very different animal than Belfast uptalk. I haven’t read anything about California uptalk, however, so I can’t offer specifics.
**I’m sorry to include a clip here that is all about the Troubles (there’s obviously more to Belfast than its recent history). However, this video provides one of the better collections of accent samples from the city you can find online.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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22 Responses to Was that a question? Belfast Upspeak

  1. Stan says:

    I also associate it with Australian English.* Note that Wikipedia conflates uptalk with high-rising terminal, much to Language Log‘s dissatisfaction.

    * I was tempted to use a question mark here; it almost seemed apt.

    • trawicks says:

      Actually, I almost included this clip of Aussie comic Adam Hills talking about uptalk in his country (Favorite line: “Sheila got eaten by a shark?”).

      Interesting that LL objects more to the linguist-created “High Rising Terminal” than the journalist-created “uptalk!”

  2. I.M. says:

    I know that there are definitely varieties of Hiberno-English (as opposed to Mid-Ulster English, which Belfast English is a subset of) that use intonation pretty much not at all to convey subtlety of meaning. I don’t know about Mid-Ulster English, but the Hiberno-English varieties, I would assume, get it from the Irish language, where questions, for example, are indicated with a particle, and not intonation, and emphasis with a suffix.

    • trawicks says:

      That wouldn’t surprise me at all. Irish accents are often described as “musical,” and yet, paradoxically, this musicality often seems unrelated to actual meaning. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is the cause of all the “tags” common to Hiberno-English: “anyway,” “sure,” “like,” etc.

  3. MarcL says:

    Trawicks:
    I think this intonational pattern has existed for a long time in a number of dialects. I just finished watching the marathon “Monarch of the Glen” (five out of seven years’ worth), and the heroine, a native speaker of Glaswegian, uses it frequently in declarative sentences. But more to the point from my personal experience, I’ve heard it more and more frequently here in New Jersey. It’s not across-the-board – I for one never use it – but it’s more and more common among the younger crowd, and I’ve heard it for at least the past 20 years. Is this a trend across all Englishes? I don’t think so. In the U.S., is it influenced by Valley Speak? maybe.

  4. NV says:

    You might be interesting in this article at Language Log. A linguist named Bob Ladd commented that, “It’s important not to confuse the rises in Belfast, Glasgow, etc. with uptalk. They’re phonetically and functionally very different.” So apparently this is a different animal than valspeak and Antipodean uptalk?

    • NV says:

      *interested

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for the link, NV. You may notice I added a short addendum right after posting this to make it clear these are not the same phenomenon. Although I don’t think “uptalk” or “upspeak” need to be defined so strictly: linguists have much more precise terminology at their disposal.

      • NV says:

        I see that now. My mistake. I often forget to look at those.

        • NV says:

          And even the guy who wrote that article/post didn’t seem to be convinced that they were phonetically different.

        • trawicks says:

          Wasn’t intending to correct you there, just wanted to point that out! But yes, I noticed that Mr. Liberman also seemed hesitant about defining the difference between the two. I’m reading up on ToBI transcription currently, so I hope to be able to discuss this in more detail in the future.

  5. AmyP says:

    When I lived in Sweden, I had two Norwegian friends who speak a Norwegian dialect where sentences end with rising inflection. To me as an American who speaks Swedish and can understand some dialects of Norwegian, it always sounded like these folks were speaking Swedish with a Californian accent. To Swedes, though, the uptalk inflection is a sign of the speaker’s good mood, so they joke that Norwegians always sound happy. (In Swedish, or at least the “standard” dialect I learned, questions don’t end with end with an upward lilt as in English, so no one thinks that Norwegians are always asking questions.)

    • TT says:

      Yeah I know exactly what you mean. I’m American and to me Norwegians sound like happy Dutch people. I like Norwegian though. Maybe it’s only because I have Norwegian ancestry :)

      Another thing which is completely unrelated to this topic (sorry!) is that I’ve noticed that some Norwegians seem to use an alveolar approximant /r/ sound at least some of the time (like many English speakers, some Dutch people and some Swedes, as you probably know). I haven’t seen this mentioned in any linguistic literature, but I swear I’ve heard it. And no, I’m not thinking of the Faroese /r/, which is more of a fricative to my ears. In Norwegian, I’ve heard this especially in the word morgen which sounds to me like (and also has the same meaning as) the English literary word morn.

  6. Ed says:

    “It also seems common in Northern English and Scottish accents”

    It occurs in Scouse and also in accents of the far-north of England (e.g. Geordie). On the other hand, the Yorkshire accent (also Northern England) has as little intonation as any language/dialect.

    • trawicks says:

      Just to once again reference the study I linked to (which I should really credit: it’s by Esther Grabe), you’ll see that while Newcastle and Leeds English have an increased tendency toward upward inflection, it’s nowhere near as frequent as Belfast.

      • Ed says:

        Sorry, I didn’t realise that link related to the previous paragraph.

        I’m also very surprised that they included both Leeds and Bradford. The two cities are hardly separate places any more given their urban sprawl. There is some difference though.

        When I said “Yorkshire accent”, I was thinking more of the broad accent you get in small towns. If you watch some clips of the film “Kes”, you’ll see what I mean by lack of intonation.

  7. boynamedsue says:

    I don’t think Leeds has got much upwards inflection, or if it has it’s in younger speakers. The most interesting thing it has is the fact that men don’t emphasise subjects much to show importance, giving their sentences a flatter sound. Women do do this, but not as frequently as men.

    So where a woman might say “THIS is USEless.” and “SHEILA’s an HEADcase!”, a man would usually say “It’s USEless, (is) this.” and “She’s an HEADcase, is Sheila.”

    In fact, not doing so might lead a man to be considered effeminate and/or Southern.

  8. Cclinton says:

    I personally have little trouble listening to uptalk, and that might be a sign that I use it myself, which I live in Oklahoma, so maybe it’s more Western then Californian? Though some of the Language log articals I just read mentioned it as a southern factor too?

    I’ve read an artical or two that makes a case that the new American Uptalk has a reason for its use when it is used, but like particles like “like” and “y’know”, the reasons for its use usually goes in one of my ears and out the other.

  9. Erica Walch says:

    Well, my North American-centric bias got a kick in the pants from this post. I had heard a (female) Scottish movie director being interviewed on BBC World News a while ago and she had major uptalk (she was from Edinburgh, if I recollect correctly), and I thought two things: (a) what a shame that Valley Girl-dom has spread to such an extent that this woman has assimilated uptalk, and (b) “I should find this link and send it to Dialect Blog, as it’s just the kind of thing that would be of interest there.” (But lethargy won that battle).

  10. I’m gone to tell my little brother, that he should also pay a quick visit this blog on regular basis to get updated from most up-to-date reports.

  11. Robin (female Robin :-P ) says:

    Someone just told me I “upspeak”…in my search for the meaning of that, I ran across this page. Born & raised in W. USA (Colorado, New Mexico & Los Angeles). I am bi-lingual (engl & german) and can get by in a number of other languages. I find language comes VERY easy to me. I lived in Hamburg, Germany for 2-3 yrs. Ok my background outlined, as a person who does “upspeak” I can explain where MINE came from.

    While it might be tempting to say that my upspeak comes from Cali…I was indeed living in Simi Valley at the valley-girl moment, however I refute the notion that I came away sounding like Moon Unit Zappa…lol..my parents throttled that out of me.. I know exactly where it came from. One of my German friends had a cute little lilt in her accent in German. I thought it was a beautiful example of soft pretty German thus I strove to have an accent in German just like her…and I succeeded. When I returned to US I had a quite strong German accent in English which took me 3 years to lose..lol. Anyway, Julia’s family lived in the N. of Germany where the traditional language is Platt-Deutsch. It is a very lilt-y German/Norwegian/English language.

    I find it disappointing that all of the comments I’ve seen in relation to this topic seems stuck in the idea that it “comes” from some specific place. I utterly disagree! I believe the reason for the primary people identified using upspeak are the young (and women behind them)..is simple in its complexity. Young people are MUCH MUCH more citizens of the world today. They interact and embrace differences in cultures and people throughout the world. They see more int’l films and are generally more open to being integrated more on the world stage… whereas the older people seemed to be more tied down by their immediate neighborhoods, cities, region or country. Also the with advent of the internet we see a globalization not experienced for many generations. By far, I see the youth reaching out to many other cultures and ideologies…again older folks tend to stay with the familiar thus the influence of other cultures, languages and styles of speech tend to spread slower …if at all.

    So-called valley girl speak, well as I was a girl raised in the valley… the only holdover I see in the US language ‘en masse’ is the over use of “like” (I’m gunna, like, go to the store and like get this, like, crazy dress) and “totally” (like totally man). The only group I really see speaking valley girl-ish would be the surfer crowd…it tends to stay pretty contained to that community… if one “puts on” that cali surfer accent and one isn’t a real surfer, well it comes across as fake and the person will be ridiculed…one has to live that lifestyle to be audacious enough the wear the accent (similar to the gay community) . I find it a form of group identification and search for inclusivity. Someone from Iowa putting on a surfer accent wouldn’t get away with it..

    However, anyone can travel (or now, surf the web) without a lifestyle change… one is seen to be cool if one picks up bits of cultures, accents and/or lingo from places one is familiar with or likes from around the world. THAT, I believe, is the spread of upspeak… simply cross pollination of cultures with a helping of tolerance towards the non-dominant cultures. For example, at the founding of the US foreigners stripped themselves of their heritage/s, languages, customs and even food. It was cool to be an American. People were ostracized by society if one didn’t drop one’s originating culture to become an American. Those who kept their cultures/languages/idiosyncrasies were seen as not being a ‘true’ American and paid the price for not adopting completely the American standard through jobs, areas in the city to live, access to good education…or flat out violence and racism. Be a ‘Stepford wife’ (see movie “Stepford Wives”) or you are not a ‘real’ patriot/American…and if you are noty a patriot you should leave the US because you didn’t deserve it. Sooo odd our history in the US.. Today cultures…esp. indigenous ones are honored and respected (esp. amongst the youth)… but many older people are still stuck in the old world mentality of being the same (or as close as one can get..lol)

    I maintain that there needs to be more specific data and research on not just the raising the voice an octave higher but the use of other wording and/or the use of inflection as a part of body language rather than simply driving the meaning of the specific words or indicating the meaning of a sentence.. As you see by this…even between the Cath vs. Prot accents within one city there is a large divide. …not to even mention the north vs south Irish…then you have the thousands of languages and peoples throughout the world.

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