I have tried Googling where the upward inflection comes from but all I get are "Valley Girl" results.

My curiosity in this started with my new German Language course I'm taking and noticed that the inflections are present there as well for questions. If I remember correctly, when I took Italian and Spanish, the inflections were there as well. I thought it was odd that it was such a seemingly universal thing among Languages.

Why is this used? Are there known origins?

  • 1
    "Why" is generally unanswerable, but as pure conjecture: as the opposite of a 'sentence cadence' it signals that the utterance is "incomplete", inviting the hearer to complete the utterance by filling in the missing information. Jul 1 '15 at 18:38
  • That's interesting, but it makes sense. To complete the thought the asker started. Jul 1 '15 at 18:40
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    The use of rising intonation for questions and falling for statements is definitely more common across languages, but not universal. Chickasaw is a language that apparently uses the opposite pattern. There is some discussion here. It's still an interesting question why rising intonation is so much more common for questions.
    – BrenBarn
    Jul 2 '15 at 6:06
  • @BrenBarn, your comment fits in with an explanation I read of Australians' ending statements with upward inflection. Someone asks an Aussie where he's from, and he replies, "Perth?" Meaning "Perth - do you know it?", or "Perth - have you heard of it?" Jul 7 '15 at 6:49

Though it may not be universal, I think in general that the rising inflection at the end of a question is actually epi-phenomenal. It is merely a confirmation of the body language of the speaker. Watch people who ask a question. When they phrase the question, they finish with a rise of the head, either directly or to the side. It is a clear invitation to come forward, to contribute, to continue the dialogue. Conversely, when a statement is made that is intended to be definitive, the head generally drops, as in a challenge. There is no invitation to continue. I think it is useful to remember that language is only the latest and most complex vocal/verbal means of expression of feelings and intents that have been expressed through other physical modalities for millions of years. Language is by no means primary, but has evolved as a means of confirming the other signals being given. Consider the difference between "You're leaving?" as a question, and the command "You're leaving!" Note how your head moves in each instance....

  • And to complete the thought. In languages in which the rise does not occur at the end of a question sentence, I would be interested in seeing what body language accompanies affirmation, invitation, etc. I live in Papua New Guinea and there are 839 languages here (most recent Ethnologue count, net of "extinct"). I have encountered several in which affirmation is indicated by a downward movement of the head or body, while the curtailment of discussion is accompanied by an upward movement. It would be interesting to hear of other examples from other parts of the world. Nov 23 '15 at 6:28

It is not universal. Alemannic (Swiss German) goes like

Hesch da schomol gse?


Wäge wa isch da jetz?

Rise towards the end of the question, and strict decrease for the last item/word.

So I guess it is arbitrary in the human languages.

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