High Rise Living
What’s up with these American influenced accents heard around Dublin? Fabian MacGinty O’Neill stands on the Soapbox to give us the low down on high rise inflections.
Nestling into my seat inside a popular North Dublin eatery, the dead time spent waiting for my order offers me an ample space to nosily zone into my compatriot’s conversations.
The male baristas with their sharp beards, and multitude of coffee preparation methods display the palpable urban Australian influence. Notes of Brooklyn, San Francisco, Berlin and Barcelona waft through the air as well.
Something in the timbre of the voices I hear feels ‘Imported’ too. It suddenly becomes apparent to me that of the half a dozen or so audible conversations in my vicinity, all of them were being conducted with a rising inflection, each sentence subtly ascending, giving definitive statements the air of an inquiry.
To spot this in your day-to-day life, keep your ears wary for definitive statements (i.e. ‘I am going there’) that have the tone of a question. Viewers of the soap Neighbours will associate it with Australia particularly. However, these days it can be heard coming from the mouths of anyone who speaks English, whether as a first-language or not.
Rising inflection is also often derisively referred to as a ‘Valley Girl’ accent, from the legendary spoken word section of the eponymous Frank Zappa song, performed by his then 16 year old daughter Moon Unit (yep), as a way of mocking her California classmates.
However, in my humble opinion, rising inflection could be more accurately described as a ‘Metropolitan accent’. In this era of self-analysis and identity politics, a tranche of opinion pieces have been written on both sides of the argument that a rising inflection (also known as a High Rising Terminal) is an inherently feminine trait.
What divides those arguments is whether rising inflection should be considered a normal and unremarkable speech pattern, scarcely to be commented on, or conversely shamed as a fundamentally uncultured way of conducting ones conversations.
Strangely, all sides of the debate, whether aggravated or indifferent, seem to consider rising inflection as a ‘female’ speech pattern. Even those in favour of greater acceptance of the speech pattern, such as Adam Gopnik or feminist columnist Naomi Wolf, fall back on the characterisation of the rising inflection being representative of the female gender’s supposed relative lack of assertion compared to men in similar social situations.
The argument suggests that the questioning tone of rising inflection is no coincidence. Supposedly, it subconsciously reflects femininity’s forced acquiescence to male power structures, a gender-wide uncertainty and trepidation. In this line of thinking, men, young and old, naturally end their sentences with a falling inflection, allowing their voice to settle and their sentences to resolve themselves confidently.
This tonal difference apparently represents their subconscious acknowledgment of their comparatively privileged position in society, and their lack of any requirement to seek approval from those around them.
Conversely, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand specifically advises aspiring professional young women to train themselves to avoid rising inflection, the lack of which she believes is key to being taken seriously by those above you in a public-facing industry.
The truth is, there’s precious little qualitative data to back either position up, although Adam Gopnik does reference research conducted into the speech patterns of American teenagers by the University of Texas.
Not to thumb my nose at their thoughts on the topic, but returning to the North Dublin brunch, I can’t see this particular sociolingual opinion represented in the real world.
A rising inflection doesn’t appear to correspond to gender, social class or outward confidence, at least not from my admittedly tiny sample size. I overhear shy, newly-arrived country folk asking for student discounts using rising inflection, and garrulous Dubs merrily gossiping using the same sentence structure. Men, and women, professional and artistic, with maybe the only palpable factor being age.
Perhaps the origin of the inflection, and the reason I can hear it so much on the streets of Ireland, is truly symbiotically linked to the major issues of our times ; tied in with women’s liberation campaigns, mass movement of people, and the globalisation of pop culture.
However, the accent and inflection is so ubiquitous now, that most of its practitioners are probably talking that way because the people in their social circle talk that way.
Ireland has always had a funny relationship with its accents, especially since they were grafted from one national language to another. It’s often remarked that in Ireland each village has its own accent. In Dublin, you can probably break that down by the street. The harsh chatter of a Liberties accent is wholly distinct from the plummy notes of Portobello, yet they are but walking distance away.
A constant delight living in Dublin is hearing how infectious the Dublin accent can be among children of new migrants, and finding the accents of Lagos and Finglas play off each other better than can be expected.
However, our accent is also uniquely malleable, easily contorting into the accent of whatever surrogate country we emigrate to. We all know at least one person returning from an expired J-1 with a noticeable American twang. You can find traces of various Irish accents from Liverpool to Adelaide, so we influence as much as we are influenced.
The Hibernian dialect seems capable of rolling with the punches. Absorbing a change like the rising inflection can be done without shaving down the distinctive edges of the Irish accent. Vocal fry, the languid, raspy tone associated with the Kardashians and more obviously influenced by social media will be the next challenge, but I’m sure we’ll cope.
But why then does rising inflection still annoy me? If I’m satisfied in my assertion that it ultimately isn’t a gender issue, that it doesn’t represent any mass sociological change, why does it sufficiently divert my attention that I felt compelled to write this in the first place?
I may be betraying an inherent snobbishness, but it occurs to me that rising inflection is somewhat of a red herring. While your accent can most definitely subtly indicate many things about your social status, whether your sentences rise or fall doesn’t really affect the content of your discussion. An intelligent point is an intelligent point.
What I was really focusing in on was how lacking in vocabulary many of the conversations were. While the general discussion was by no means deficient in intellectual capacity, there was an overabundance of filler words, exclamations, ‘um’s’ and ‘ah’s’, a deluge of ‘like’s’.
This doesn’t speak to any great degeneration of lexiconic capability since the days of Received Pronunciation and the Queen’s English. If anything, those alive today are the most interconnected society in human history, not lacking in easy access to descriptive information.
The lack of love for language seems to come more from the limitations of traditional education, and particularly of rote learning. Most instead learn their idioms and phraseology from their peers, and immediate cultural influences. Humans are social creatures, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that our desire to belong is one of our most important impulses besides survival. Adolescence is typically the time that we define our identities, and the language we use to speak to each other is one of the most important aspects of self-definition.
How can we as a society re-instill a love for detail in language while not having to enforce by diktat? Perhaps a program to radically reform primary and secondary education, providing the resources needed to individualize lessons, and give tutoring to those who need it could allow children to settle into whatever linguistic pattern, influencing themselves with diverse viewpoints and experiences, rather than restricting themselves to following the crowd.
However, considering what you’ve been reading has been written by a person who thinks it’s normal to use words like ‘lexiconic’ and ‘tranche’ in everyday conversation, best to take my opinion on this issue with a pinch of salt.