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Richard Powers’ declarative phrases

Once again, the wonderful Language Log gives its readers something to think about. In this case, Mark Liberman, Trustee Professor of Phonetics at the University of Pennsylvania, analyses Kurt Andersen’s interview with novelist Richard Powers: “Richard Powers on his way to a decision”.
The whole interview (9 mins.) can be listened to here, thanks to Studio 360:

Apart from the content of what Powers says, Liberman is interested in a particular phonetical phenomenon:

In the middle of the interview, Powers breaks into a sequence of declarative phrases with final rising pitch — what’s sometimes called “uptalk”. Before and after this sequence, which sets the stage for an account of his decision to become a writer, he consistently uses falling patterns. It seems clear that he means the rising contours to have a rhetorical effect. But it’s equally clear that the intended effect is not to signal insecurity or to call into question his commitment to the truth of what he’s saying. So as part of my on-going campaign to document uptalk — especially non-stereotypical examples — here’s a description.

He then offers a close transcription of that passage and describes in detail what is interesting about the phrases with final rising pitch. Liberman interprets this as Powers’ way to involve the listener into his emotionally charged delivery – in contrast to other linguists who claim rising pitches always to indicate questions (real or rhetorical).

The reason for the interview was the publication of Powers’ latest novel, “Generosity: An Enhancement”. Here’s the beginning of a review by Ron Charles (Washington Post), taken from the Amazon site:

Sixteen years after Peter Kramer’s “Listening to Prozac,” Richard Powers has heard the alarming implications of treatments that let us buy better moods and personalities. His cerebral new novel offers a chilling examination of the life we’re reengineering with our chromosomes and brain chemistry. Although it’s tempting to call “Generosity” a dystopia about the pharmaceutical future in the tradition of Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Powers sticks so closely to the state of current medical science and popular culture that this isn’t so much a warning as a diagnosis. And as with any frightening diagnosis, you’ll be torn between denial and a desperate urge to talk about it.

The story begins on a deceptively small scale: Russell Stone is a cynical young editor for a cheesy self-improvement magazine called Becoming You. He’s still recovering from a brief period of fame when his witty personal essays were sought after by NPR and the New Yorker. But now, at 32, he spends his days translating saccharine testimonies of personal triumph into Standard English. Lonely and depressed, he jumps at the chance to teach a night class in creative nonfiction at a Chicago arts college.
Everything in this provocative novel revolves around a mysterious student in Russell’s class named Thassa Amzwar. She’s an Algerian who came to Chicago by way of Paris and Montreal after losing her home and her parents “during the Time of Horrors.” By any reasonable measure, she should be shellshocked or corroded with bitterness, but instead she’s hypnotically happy, “the world’s most blissful refugee,” with a voice like “mountain flutes.” Russell is immediately fascinated by her: “Ten years of organized bloodbath have reduced a country the size of western Europe to a walking corpse. And Thassa has emerged from that land glowing like a blissed-out mystic.”
Everybody in class soaks “in the glow of this woman, her eerie contentment.” They quickly dub her “Miss Generosity,” but Russell thinks she’s “either on newly discovered antidepressants or so permanently traumatized she’s giddy.”

Powers can write lovely and heartfelt stories (he won a National Book Award in 2006), but he also has a well-deserved reputation for brainy fiction (he won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1989), and “Generosity” may be his most demanding novel yet.

Studio 360 generously offers an audio clip of Richard Powers reading from his novel:

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