The List Lilt

Stephen Potter

Stephen Potter

I told you about vocal fry. And you know all about uptalk? The inflection that was first discussed by Robin Lakoff in 1976, that was given its name by James Gorman in a 1993 New York Times article, and that continues to rouse the ire of right-thinking people everywhere?

Well, here’s a new one, which I started noticing a couple of years ago, among friends, colleagues, students, and National Public Radio interviewees (basically, my audio universe). It’s a way of voicing a list as if to imply that it contains even more items than the ones mentioned. 

Here’s an example, from an interview on the NPR show On the Media. The interviewer is Brooke Gladstone and the interviewee is health journalist Virginia Hughes. Hughes actually presents a trifecta—she uptalks at the beginning, vocal fries throughout, and, at the end of the clip, employs what I call “list lilt.”

Her voice goes higher on healthier and live longer, but it doesn’t sound like a question and isn’t uptalk. Rather, as I say, the rise suggests that people come to health stories looking for more things than just the two listed. Here’s another example, also from On the Media. The speaker is a professor named Seth Masket, talking about his involvement in a political film, and once again there are two items in the list.

In my observation, the tone can rise anywhere from a musical third to a whole octave on each named 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. If an item is multisyllabic, then the end syllables go down a couple of tones, followed by the word and on the same note. The second item is up at the same note as the first item. As I say, there usually is no third item.

The list lilt is a vocalizing of polysindeton. That’s the rhetorical device of inserting a conjunction (usually and) rather than a comma between items in a list. You see it in the King James Bible, and Shakespeare, and Hemingway, and in these examples offered up by Wikipedia:

  • “Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly—mostly—let them have their whiteness.”—Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • “There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway. Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places.”—Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

The list lilt is a pretty clever and economical move, allowing you to pack the rhetorical wallop of polysindeton without having to come up with all those examples.  Still, I’m not a big fan. It seems an unearned shortcut, a bit like the term “and so on.” If there are additional pertinent items, let’s hear ‘em!

But I’m more interested in observing and classifying this phenomenon than in judging it, and I’d be interested in readers’ sightings and observations. In the meantime, in the spirit of the great English humorist Stephen Potter, who in his book Gamesmanship advised unnerving one’s opponent by whistling a theme from Elgar, with one note wrong—and included musical notation for the passage—here is my rendition of the list lilt in the key of C. Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 11.33.54 AM

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