What’s Up Doc? (or What’s Uptalk?)

November 4, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

What’s up with Matthew Yglesias and uptalk?

On The Weeds, the new podcast from Vox, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Sarah Kliff talk politics and policy for an hour or more. The talk is often informed by research and data even to the point of wonkitude (anyone for Consumer Price Index vs. Chained Consumer Price Index?). But what struck me on listening for the first time was not the content. It was Yglesias’s uptalk or upspeak. Here he is discussing gerrymandering and the drawing of Congressional district lines.

Because what the Democratic incumbents had been doing?
they’d been doubling down on safety for themselves?
and the independent commission forced the Democratic incumbents?
to take on districts that were a little bit riskier?
I mean still D-leaning?
because it’s California?
But so they picked seats up.
When I read the transcript by itself – no audio – I hear it without the rising inflections mid-sentence.

Here’s another example just few moments a later.


I mean, I think the Canadian case is interesting because one subtle psychological thing they do?
is the districts have to have names?
rather than numbers?
and so that that encourages, I think, subtly but really an idea of community coherence?
because you get districts with names like Edmonton Centre.

I think that what they do there
with that naming?
with that sort of principle? right
that the district should represent a place,
and the place should be something you can give a name to?
because it should have some kind of tangible relationship?
I think that lines up very well with the way most people think it should be done?
Y’know I think it’s like authentic to the values?
of the American people?
I also think it’s a little bit dumb?
because it allows for a ton of disproportionality?
And actually Canadian elections?
have awful disproportionality?
in part because they have multiple parties?
running in these seats?
Where did Yglesias acquire this inflection? Possibly it’s generational, and younger ears hear nothing noteworthy in Yglesias’s speech. Yglesias is under 40. I am well over 40. But the other two podcasters, Klein and Kliff, are younger than Yglesias but are not uptalkers. Or is it regional? I had thought that uptalk had started in California in the 1970s. But Yglesias grew up in New York city in the 1980s and has remained on the East Coast.

What is the meaning of these rising intonations? They don’t suggest uncertainty, nor do they seem to be asking “are you with me on this?” Some linguists see them as ways of saying, “I’m not finished with this sentence, so don’t interrupt me.” That’s one reason uptalk is more prevalent among women – they want to forestall interruptions from men. 

I’m not complaining (uptalk – not that there’s anything wrong with that). The time for handwringing over uptalk as the end of civilization as we know it has come and gone. I’m just curious as to why Ezra Klein, the Californian, speaks with barely a trace of uptalk, and Matthew Yglesias, the New Yorker, saturates his speech with it.


The Hungary Traveler said...

Noticed the same thing and have a difficult time concentrating on Matthew's speech content because I find it so distracting

C. Joseph said...

I'm 35 and I find it totally maddening.

Virginia Roberts said...

Can I pile on and complain that his brand of uptalk makes his volume levels go all over the map, so he's incredibly hard to hear at a reasonable listening volume? My husband and I have to crank the volume on this podcast and blast our ears with the other two speakers to understand Yglesias at all.

Jay Livingston said...

My problem with the podcast is that Yglesias and Klein are at about the same volume, but Kliff’s volume is twice as loud. If you’re listening to it on speakers, it’s not something you’d really notice. But I listen on earbuds, and the louder voice is painful. I have to keep adjusting the volume.
But in the latest podcast I listened to (post-Super-Tuesday) the volumes were more similar, and Yglesias was even less uptalky.

J said...

I'm catching up with a few episodes of The Weeds right now; Yglesias' upspeak sent me looking to see if I was the only one put off by the high-rising terminal, and glad to see I'm not.

I'm closer to Yglesias' age and don't think it's a generational thing. I have noticed that if Yglesias peppers every single clause with upspeak, Ezra Klein will -- either studiously or unconsciously -- avoid it. However, if Yglesias is employing upspeak only 75% of the time, Klein may start to mirror his speech pattern.

The good thing, though, is these people are incredibly thorough, and I've found if I just skip past Yglesias, I can generally fill in the blanks with almost no loss of info based on what the others either say or are responding to.

Jay Livingston said...

Maybe I'm adapting, but I get the impression that Yglesias has been trying to reduce his upspeak, though he still forgets to monitor himself. But the show is the best political/policy podcast I've found, and all three are well-informed and thoughtful, so I'll put up with the ups.