Speaking like it's a question? | Pat Cashman


My grandmother would have been apoplectic at such a phrase coming from a president. But President Obama said it recently when talking about the health care rollout: “We screwed up.”

Grandma probably would have been slightly happier with “messed up.”

If you scour presidential remarks throughout history, you will find no such precedent for the use of “screwed up.” Although there are some who believe that one of Lincoln’s most famous lines was originally written as: “You can screw up all the of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot screw up all of the people all of the time.”

A teacher-friend of mine does not believe that the English language is “screwed" – or even – "messed up,” but is simply, and always, evolving.

Except for the ever annoying, “Have a nice day.” Whoever invented that phrase ought to be doing life – plus another 30 years – in prison. With no chance for parole.

It’s just that “have a nice day” is usually said without a scintilla of sincerity. It can be said with equal ease by a shoe salesman – or a funeral director.

A friend of mine has mounted a one-man backlash – and is always ready to spring with a snide reply:

“Sorry. I’ve got other plans.”

“Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll let you know how it works out.”

“Did you have a particular day in mind? Tuesday would be best for me.”

“I’ll bear that in mind when I’m having my colonoscopy later today.”

A guy I know has this standard greeting, “How are you?” I know it may look just fine in print, but in practice he says it in the flat, listless tone of an actuary on downers.

But I guess you’ve got to him credit for what he is saying – not how he is saying it.

Which brings us to the linguistic phenomenon of the voice inflection that makes a sentence that is not actually a question, sound like one.

Some call it upspeak – and whether you know it or not, you’ve heard it. It’s where the last word of a declarative sentence, goes up on the last syllable.

Sometimes it’s called Valley Girl talk – or rising inflection, high-rising intonation or the high rising terminal.

It’s apparent purpose is to drive the listener nuts.

And it’s not just a young person thing. I’ve heard adult government spokespeople using it:

“Good afternoon, members of the press? If any of you have any questions? I’ll answer them? In a way that sounds like one?”

I’ve tried to imagine famous speakers of the past using the upspeak voice pattern. Lincoln again:

“Four score? And seven years ago? Our forefathers? Set forth on this planet? A new nation? Conceived in liberty? Etc.”

I’ve heard that there are actually a few linguists who believe the upspeak habit may have originated in Washington state.

Look, we’ll take credit for airplanes, software, coffee, Macklemore and the Seahawks.

But give the upspeak thing to Idaho. That’d be totally awesome.


Pat Cashman can be reached at pat@patcashman.com and at his podcast at peculiarpodcast.com. Pat's new weekly local comedy sketch show, "the 206," airs following SNL on KING 5.

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