The HRT a new usage problem?

Is the so-called High Rise Terminal, HRT for short and also called Upspeak, developing into a new usage problem? Robert Ilson, in an article in The English Language Today (1985), mentions three criteria that define linguistic features as potential usage problems: “actual occurrence, fairly widespread occurrence, and discussability without giving offence”.

Twice now this week (and it is only Wednesday today), I came across a reference to the HRT. The first time was when I had just started on the novel Solar, by Ian McEwan (2010). The main character Michael Beard, Nobel prize winner for physics, describes his reluctance to engage with a group of postdocs working for him. They all wear ponytails and behave identically, even as far as their language use is concerned:

Much of the time he did not know what they were saying. The ponytails spoke at speed, on a constant, rising interrogative note, which caused an obscure muscle to tighten in the back of Beard’s throat as he listened. They failed to enunciate their words, going only so far with a thought, until one of the others muttered, ‘Right!’, after which they would jump to the next unit of utterance – one could hardly call it a sentence (p. 21).

And the second time was yesterday, when I read the Dutch writer Pia de Jong’s weekly column in NRC Handelsblad about her experiences as a newcomer to Princeton, USA. This time, Pia de Jong wrote about a thirteen-year-old American friend of her daughter, who apologised for not having put on her little-girls’ intonation.

Toontje hoger (NRC)

Pia de Jong in vain tried to convince the girl that she would be fine using her regular voice. Even her own daughter had already acquired the HRT in her new language, along with all kinds of other Valleyspeak expressions, like OMG, like, totally, whatever. Even more peculiar than the ability to switch the accent on and off according to perceived need according to de Jong, is that the mothers of her daughter’s friends also speak like that.

Ian McEwan is caricaturing the speech of young (male) academics, but de Jong is describing the conscious acquisition process of the HRT by girls in their early teens – fascinating. Both are critical of the feature, and it seems that Ilson’s criteria are met. Does all this mean that the HRT is becoming a new usage problem, to native speakers, that is?

(And btw, I was the first to share Pia de Jong’s article on Facebook!)

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