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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?

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    "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, 2015 at 18:38
  • That's interesting, but it makes sense. To complete the thought the asker started. Jul 1, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2015 at 6:49

4 Answers 4

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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....

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  • 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, 2015 at 6:28
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It is not universal. Alemannic (Swiss German) goes like

Hesch da schomol gse?
______------________

or

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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Rising intonation with in questions is so widespread that there is no historical evidence regarding pre-modern English. The best that we can do regarding explaining the observation is (1) to say more precisely what seems to be true about human language and (2) to conjecture about functional explanations. It seems to be true that polar questions are more associated with a conventionalized intonation pattern with distinctive pitch rise towards the end, than with distinctive pitch fall (although more accurately, there is most often a longer rise and a short final fall). When declarative and interrogative sentences are distinguished intonationally, languages most often do so with rising intonation for questions and some other pattern for declaratives.

Why then would it not be the case that declaratives generally have rising intonation and interrogatives have falling intonation. I should also point out that rising and falling intonations are not exactly symmetrical, in that rising intonation typically reaches a higher pitch that falling intonation starts from. As is the case with many "why" questions in linguistics, the answer requires seeking functional the functional underpinnings that can lead to language evolution. There is a social (pragmatic) difference between questions and declarations, that a question is a request made of another person, a request for information. A request is generally understood to be subject to the willingness of the requestee, though of course you can demand an answer, that is not a typical question.

People tend to react positively to small things, such as children, puppies and kitties. Small things generally have higher pitch in whatever acoustic outputs they produce (for direct physical reasons). A higher pitch is therefore more likely to engender a positive response than a negative response (tendencies, not an absolute law of human behavior). Higher pitch in questions is therefore more likely to generative a positive reaction and compliance with the request than low pitch is.

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I think there are instances where we can use an upward inflection at the middle of a questioning sentence for specific emphasis, as in “You’re going to WALK there?” It seems to mean that the destination and the going are not in question, but the mode of going is being questioned strongly. You can also lift the last word in that example, but it seems to give the utterance a slightly different meaning.

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