There’s a tendency some people have, that when they’re listing off a few things, their voice goes up and holds, goes up and holds, with each item. It’s rhythmic, yes, but it also sounds like the speaker is bored, like of course you know what I’m talking about here, Gawd, do I really even have to say all of this? Yawn.
I’ve been noticing it for a while, but didn’t know what it was, or how common it was, or if I was just making it up (fyi: this is exactly a list that would inspire this kind of hydro-planing). So I left it.
But in my world at CBC Radio, in cafes and on the street, it was not to be outrun. Others have noticed it too (and after it’s pointed out, you can’t not hear it). I heard such an egregious example the other day that I just couldn’t take it anymore: I had to find out something. Anything.
So I turned to Ben Yagoda, professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware, who knows about such things. He wondered about it some time ago, so it’s curious that practically nothing else is out there in the public sphere.
He calls it List lilt. So satisfying. Finally, a name.
Yagoda writes that it’s a vocalizing of polysyndeton, which is a technique that uses conjunctions (and, but, or) in quick succession, instead of commas. Kind of like your lions and tigers and bears (oh my!).
He has even figured out the musical intervals, ranging from a third to an octave on each item: “the magnitude of the ascent corresponds to the (implied) length of the list and also to a sort of ritualized, everybody-knows quality the speaker wants to convey,” he writes.
More recently, Rachel Steindel Burdin, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of New Hampshire, co-wrote a paper on this phenomenon with Joseph Tyler, which was presented at the Speech Prosody 2016 conference.
Rather than list lilt, they call it a rise-plateau.
They found that it signals the speaker thinks the listener already knows the items, so is therefore just reminding, and isn’t specific to just lists. It’s not to be confused with a rise, which occurs when you list off items that might be new: you need an anchor, screw, drill, screwdriver, hard hat, flak jacket. That kind of thing.
Participants in the study largely found the rise was informative (“just telling him what needs to be done”) or instructional, and that the listener did not know the items in the list (“Mark must not know what is in corn dip that Stacie makes”). The rise was described as being “helpful”, “friendly”, and “less judgmental”.
Not so for the rise-plateau (or list lilt). Subjects thought it sounded like the list was uncertain and not fully planned (“seems to be her brainstorming it”, “…was thinking of things to add as he listed them”), and that it conveyed the listener already knows, or should know, the listed items.
The rise-plateau had more negative meanings overall, with the speaker described as “bored”, “annoyed”, “condescending”, and “dismissive”.
Interestingly, the male speaker was rated as sounding more condescending, and less helpful, than the female speaker. The authors say it may be related to general stereotypes about male speakers (as a potential “mansplainer”) and female speakers (as being more nurturing or helpful).
I find that while women don’t necessarily sound condescending, it can come across as a ‘so-over-this-but-feel-it’s-my-duty-to-share’ attitude, which can be just as bothersome.
Burdin says there isn’t anything to indicate this listing technique on the rise; they found references to rise-plateau in lists in linguistic literature from the 1970s and 80s.
But I still feel it’s on the rise. And while I appreciate that language and the way we use it is constantly developing — this is one development that I hope plateaus, soon.