Most Prime Ministers rise and fall. Liz Truss seems to fall then rise – in her spoken discourse, that is. In this post, I present a brief analysis of the some of the prosodic features of the Prime Minister’s language taken from her recent interview with Nick Robinson on the Radio 4 Today programme, including her tendency to use upspeak.

High-Rising Terminal (upspeak)

High-rising terminal (HRT), also know as upspeak or uptalk, is a feature of spoken discourse in which a speaker ends a declarative sentence with rising intonation rather that a standard falling pitch. This marked features, it has been suggested, has the effect of presenting utterances as questions or signalling doubt. It is probably more a strategic feature, however, which signals continuity in speech thought. Most speakers who deploy this style invariably end a series of HRTs with a falling pitch on the last statement of the spoken paragraph (paratone) to close their idea.

Truss, the new British Prime Minister, has a slightly odd style in which the HRTs are realised as a fall then rise in pitch in many instances. This can be clearly be heard by listening to the sample below while reading the transcript. The last words in most tone units receive a fall-rise pitch pattern until at the end of the spoken paragraph, a final, falling pitch is delivered to signal the completion of the idea.

01 this is the right ↗time 
02 to (.) take ↗on
03 some extra borrowing 
04 cos of very very ↗severe
05 ↗international 
06 situation 
07 that we ↘face [end paragraph]

External link to audio

A spoken paragraph, sometimes termed a paratone, is a collection of tone units which serves to demarcate the end of one idea and the start of the next. It is analogous to the paragraph in written language. A pitch trace of this effect, generated by SpeechAnalyzer from SIL, is shown graphically below:

Short Tone Units

Truss also tends to delivery monologues in relatively short tone units. A tone unit is a collection of words under a single intonation contour. In English this is typically 5 or 6 words or more, but Truss often drops down to short 3 or 4 word units which gives her speech a very stunted, plodding effect. This may contribute to the perception that she is a monotonous speaker as some people have suggested.

01 well we’re working very closely with the OBR
02 it’s important that we have a
03 forecast to go
04 with that plan
05 and that’s something the
06 chancellor’s working on

External link to audio

Notice also how she divides up the tone unit at odd places at times. In line 02 we would expect the phrase ‘a forecast’ to be kept together in the same tone unit but Truss splits the indefinite article from the head noun. This also happens in line 03 (‘to go with’) and line 05 (‘the chancellor’).

Creaky Voice

The final feature that I will identify is creaky voice, sometimes called laryngealization. This is where a speaker’s pitch drops below the normal range of vocal register and a certain ‘growliness’ or ‘creakiness’ is heard. Listen to the samples presented here where the last word in each utterance is articulated with creaky voice.

External link to audio

Creaky Voice on ‘Nick’

BBC Radio 4 The Today Programme, 4th October 2022 (at 2h11m33s)