Doing linguistics

Dusan's COlumn


Dušan Nikolić

linguistic 'jeopardy'

Have you ever seen the American show Jeopardy!? I have recently watched a couple of episodes, and I frankly find the show quite tedious. It seems as if it had been designed by demagogues (read politicians), for who else would answer questions in a question form? But that’s only a matter of perspective. For one thing, I know that my friend, Lyndon, is a big fan of the show, and that he will appreciate this text. And this text is precisely about ‘Linguistic jeopardy’.

Recently I found out from Dr. Flynn’s most recent tweet that Thomas Linneman wrote an article: Gender in Jeopardy!: Intonation Variation on a Television Game Show, which was published in Gender and Society, in 2014. Exploring the use of a specific intonation feature called uptalk, the author observed that, depending on the circumstances female and male contestants found themselves in, they would employ different intonation patterns. Linneman’s research showed that, in the show, men employed uptalk more frequently when surrounded by women contestants. The paper also revealed that the more successful male contestants were, the less likely they were to use a rising intonation pattern. Contrary to this finding, success in the show with women contestants was paralleled with their more frequent use of uptalk. One can make a number of conclusions from these results, but one broad interpretation we can offer is that language variations in different contexts and among different groups of speakers (topics studied by sociolinguistics) are worth exploring as they shed light on human nature; or, more specifically in a Jeopardy-like manner, we may observe: what is men use uptalk to express uncertainty? 

“Language variations in different contexts and among different groups of speakers are worth exploring as they shed light on human nature”

Linneman’s research by all means suffers from many ailments of an experimental set-up, and from a surprising lack of awareness that the intonation patterns used by the contestants were nowhere to be found in the paper. Still, one cannot deny its strength in motivating linguists and linguistics enthusiasts to embark upon a journey of exploring language through its use. The author went through 100 episodes of Jeopardy!, and analyzed 300 contestants overall. Such high numbers deserve nothing but a commendation, for to analyze each contestant individually demanded an embarrassing amount of hard work. Despite some straightforward interpretations Linneman puts forward, he, admittedly, acknowledges that there are many questions lurking in the background. He says that “the key step now is to continue to study the use of uptalk in additional contexts outside of the Jeopardy! arena. Do men use uptalk when correcting women in the course of normal conversations? Do successful women in a variety of environments use uptalk more in order to compensate for their success? How do older women feel about the use of uptalk among their younger female peers?” 

It is not only Jeopardy!, one of the most celebrated and longest (if not the longest-running) quiz shows in America, that a linguist can analyze. For example, there is a lot of socio-linguistic information streaming from the language use of the current USA president. Presidents have always been an exciting topic to explore. If you sneak a peek at Ladefoged’s ‘A Course in Phonetics’, you can have fun reading about Obama’s use of rhythm in his speech. In fact, I don’t think that Clinton’s hoarse voice and intonation were robbed out of numerous explorations during his time as well (to mention but a few American presidents).

Linneman’s paper is intelligently articulated recognition of a possibility to explore language within certain social dimensions – class, gender, race, power relations, etc.; hence, Linguistics, as a scientific and creative discipline, provides ample space for jeopardy – but only an intellectual one, the one in which you get to provide many answers and raise a lot more questions.