We could blame it on The Ashes. Last week, media outlets reported the Brits’ use of the Aussie accent might hurt their chances of promotion.
But take a deep breath and two steps back from the 24-hour news cycle. It isn’t the Aussie accent at issue here. Rather, it’s a single language feature: the Australian use of a rising question-like intonation in declarative statements (known as the “Australian question intonation”, or the “AQI”).
A widely-reported survey by UK publisher Pearson found that 85% of British managers believed use of the AQI by British employees was a sign of insecurity and might impact their promotion.
The AQI has been noted in Australian English at least as far back as the 1960s and it has clearly come (or rather gone) a long way. But use of AQI in the British context is likely a nuanced matter.
Rising intonation has been linked by linguists to a number of seemingly conflicting strategies, including deference and aggression. Businesses certainly recognise the power of pitch variation (e.g. high-pitched and low-pitched voices) and have sought to restrain it.
Let’s work toward the business context. First stop: the zoo.
Monkey see, monkey do?
Our use of pitch may speak to our inner animal instincts and instinctual perceptions of pitch, animal size and aggression. A larger animal, in theory, has a longer vocal tract and longer vocal chords – and thus produces lower pitched vocalisations.
Along these lines, it has been argued that animals emit lower pitched vocalisations (growls) to index confidence and aggression. Conversely, their less aggressive or submissive counterparts emit higher pitch vocalisations (yelps).
Does this transfer to humans? Maybe.
At the outset, pitch variation in human male and female voices can normally be attributed to the vocal tract and chord dimensions. Males typically have a vocal tract 15-20% longer than females and vocal chords that are about 50% longer.
But we may, of course, run into a large man with a squeaky voice, as the British linguist David Crystal points out. So, in short, the speech organ size, animal size and aggression dimension has been questioned.
In other words, more effort is spent vocalising a higher pitched utterance than a low. Consequently, such a pitch may be viewed as an act of deference as would be a bow to royalty or an animal lowering its head.
Functions of rising intonation?
Use of rising intonation for declarative statements takes place in a number of English varieties, including those spoken in Belfast, Tyneside, Canada, Hong Kong and the US (e.g. “uptalk” linked to the California Valley Girl).
Use varies across these contexts. Use of rising intonation in Belfast is said to be the default for most statements. Therefore, some have argued that in Belfast it doesn’t mean anything at all.
Yet in many places, including Australia, rising intonation in statements has been linked to uncertainty, politeness, deference and the introduction of new information in a conversation.
The AQI has also been linked as a means of “holding the floor”.
In other words, I might insert a rising intonation here (?) to make sure you are following me (and here, too – ?), but also to let you know I plan to keep talking.
Notably, there is some overlap in the use of the AQI and other cooperative conversational markers, such as “you know”, “right”, and “well”. Individuals often use those linguistic strategies to forge a bond with their speaker and to engage in cooperative conversation.
But, as with “you know”, “right”, and “well”, the AQI often gets up people’s noses. Not unlike British managers in the Pearson survey, Australians have viewed users of the AQI as less certain, more hesitant and less confident.
The hidden power of pitch?
Much has been made about the deferential nature of rising intonation in statements in Australia and beyond.
But research outside of Australia has illustrated rising intonation may actually be used to assert dominance in some contexts.
This research shows how the chairs of business meetings use the rising intonation three times more frequently than supposedly deferent attendees. This is done, among other things, to assert that the inferiors need to be reminded of some common ground.
Businesses recognise the power of pitch and have sought to commodify it. Call centre managers train their employees to use what they term a “smiling voice”. This includes rising intonation on statements and those discourse markers such as “you know”, “right”, and “well” noted above.
Some business leaders have sought to constrain pitch range (variations between high and low pitch). Scottish linguistics scholar Deborah Cameron notes that it is both a stereotype and at times an empirical finding that women use a wider pitch range.
This has been used to label women as emotional and lacking in authority. This, argues Cameron, prompted Margaret Thatcher to reduce her pitch range to project a steady and powerful image.
In short, British managers are likely concerned about employees’ confidence levels for a number of social and possibly instinctual reasons.
Then again, it could be The Ashes.