Saturday 26 August 2017


One of comedian Adam Hill’s better-known skits is about the way it sounds like every sentence an Australian says sounds like they are asking a question – apparently, they have so little confidence in themselves, that they have to hedge their bets. You can see a clip here.

However, as funny as this observation is, is this really why people tend to use a higher pitch at the end of a sentence? This is just one question that Erez Levon decided to find out.

Known as High Rising Terminals, or HRTs, this rise in intonation that occurs at the end of phrases is well-documented across various dialects of English, including the aforementioned Australian English, as well as in Canada and the US. It is used to perform multiple functions in the discourse, including showing that the speaker has not yet finished their turn, and marking in-group solidarity. However, there has been considerably less documentation on its pragmatic function in UK dialects.

Using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods, Levon looked at recordings from forty-two of his undergraduate students, to see how often this feature was used, and in what contexts. The students were asked to do twenty to thirty minutes of recordings in small groups – some of which were mixed sex, some of which were not. The recordings were then transcribed, and the instances of HRT annotated and then coded by speaker.

There was a huge variation in how many HRTs participants used; some only used the feature as few as 64 times, some as many as 317. Across over 7,000 instances of HRTs, Levon found some interesting patterns. For one, contrary to stereotypes, everyone in the group used HRT, regardless of gender. While the usage rates ranged from 3.5% of phrases up to 41.2%, there was no one who never or always used it. Furthermore, whilst women regularly used them regardless of the gender composition of the group, men used them considerably more in mixed-sex settings. In fact, men used them more even than the women did in these groups – something that may surprise those who associate it with female speech.

Men and women were also significantly more likely to use the feature in the context of describing something or recounting a narrative when in these groups, as opposed to giving a fact or opinion. They were also both far more likely to use HRT on information that was new to a conversation, rather than going over something that was already a given.

So then I discovered a formula to figure out any prime number!

When Levon did his qualitative analysis, however, he found some even more fascinating data. There was definitely a gendered difference in the way that men and women employed HRTs in a narrative.  Women used HRT to lessen their threat to other people wanting to participate in the conversation, but they also used it to maintain control of the narrative. Men, meanwhile, used HRT to signal useful and interesting information in their narrative, and so control the spotlight on themselves, so to speak.

Of course, there were some omissions from the study – there were no non-white, lower class, or LGBT participants, who of course often differ from their straight white middle-class peers in the way they use such features.  Indeed, the gendered aspect of its use could be very different amongst LGBT participants, and hence worthy of further study. What is clear though, is that Adam Hills is wrong – people don’t use HRTs because they are uncertain. If anything, they indicate just how certain they are!

Levon, Erez (2016). Gender, interaction and intonational variation: The discourse functions of High Rising Terminals in London. Journal of Sociolinguistics 20 (2), 133-63.


This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

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