An example of the impact of nonverbal (tonal) qualities of a message.

Recently I sent a note to some colleagues mentioning that I had noticed that some people—more often women—ended a sentence or a phrase with an upward inflection that usually indicates a question. I asked if anyone had an understanding of this, since I didn’t want to rediscover something that was already understood. I got the wonderful response below from a linguist who asked not to be identified:

“Ah, a linguistic question! This phenomenon is known in linguistics as ‘high rising terminal,’ or HRT. Its origins have been variously located as the American West or New Zealand (the latter where it is widely used, as I experienced when I taught linguistics on the South Island for several years). It’s also found in Australia and a number of other spots in the world.

“An Australian study found it was used more by the younger generation. A New Zealand study noted ‘use of HRTs being favored by young Maori and by young Pakeha [people of European descent] women’ (David Britain, 1992). Its functions are seen to be positive politeness (which includes attending to others’ needs, and using what are called solidarity or in-group markers, like ‘dude’ or ‘mate’) as well as encouraging the addressee in the conversation. These behaviors are more common among women. Deborah Tannen calls such speech by women ‘rapport talk’ versus men’s stereotypical ‘report talk.’

“Negative reactions to HRT include an assumption of the speaker being uncertain about what they are speaking about. I have an excellent personal example. When I was getting my Ph.D. in linguistics, a top-notch corpus linguist was one of my professors. He’d just been hired away from an excellent university, and was up for tenure at our university after only one year (very unusual), but the department chair was concerned about supporting him getting tenure as he had gotten mixed reviews from student evaluations in his first semester. She asked me, as one of his Ph.D. students, to observe his teaching and write a letter for his file explaining why his students were sometimes unhappy with him.

“My finding? He used HRT—even when explaining complex things he had created (like computer programs used to analyze language). I wrote the letter, and he came to see me and thanked me profusely, saying he had not understood why students at this new university were sometimes confused in his classes and at times overtly hostile to his teaching. His students were confused because most Americans associate HRT with questions and presume uncertainty when someone says a declarative sentence (a statement), with a questioning intonation. He decreased his usage of HRTs, student understanding and trust in his knowledge increased, and he got tenure.”