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.

Unknown 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.

Anonymous said...

2 years later...he has not improved one iota.

Jay Livingston said...

If I had the time and software (UpApp?), I'd analyze the audio and get some data to see whether it's just that I've stopped noticing (except in the really egregious cases) or if Yglesias has actually toned down the up.

stoneghost said...

It's viscerally painful to listen to, and I spend my years teaching teenagers and as a result am exposed to an avalanche of fads in speech, slang and everything in-between and I've never heard someone whose speech is borderline comically drenched in up talking seeming affect. It makes taking him seriously very difficult because it comes across as shrill in tone. It pops into literally every paragraph and sometimes nearly every sentence of his speech. It's PAINFUL to listen too. Like excruciating.

I wonder if some people simply aren't as impacted by style of speech or sound as others because I've come across others that land jobs where they engage in a great deal of public speech and are ice pick through the ears painful to listen too and yet go on. Poor Blair Andrews at rotoviz has a nasal drone to his speech on their fantasy football podcasts that makes him sound like a comic reinterpretation of Ben Stein's drone for the 21st century. Just painful. Brilliant guy, but totally lacking in radio/podcast voice through no fault of his own. That being said, his nasal drone doesn't make me want to scream like Yglesias' uptalk which always sounds like performative affect, even if it isn't (and why would anyone willingly embrace such a technique of speech. To be fair, someone's got to like it since it's been a bit of a trend in recent years).

Anonymous said...

Google brought me here after searching for "Matthew Yglesias voice", which I find maddeningly irritating. I've lost count of the number of times my mind went off-subject trying to follow whatever it is he is trying to say.

His upspeak is actually twice as bothersome as typical, as he often dive-bombs a sentence from a high point at the beginning: "Geeeeble bee-beeeble and then the administration reported an incorrect count?"

Unlistenable. Please find a voice training class.

I'm 48, my father was a broadcaster, and I'm ultra-picky about speech. I routinely side with the ranks of trained voice talent, social gatekeepers, and speech pathologists rather than the linguists of the world who become pants-crappingly-thrilled at the discovery of every new quirk of speech no matter how faddish or irksome.

Here's another epidemic begging resolution: The explosive overuse of "right?" to finish one's own sentence. Right? Like, the Trump administration is planning to cancel environmental rights next Monday, right? After Congress votes upon it? Which McConnell will certainly vote down? Right?


Most guilty: The podcasters at Five Five Thirty. I counted 137 "rights" during what was, mercifully, my last listen before unsubscribing.

Another loss? The letter 'X'. You know things are getting bad when even the BBC is telling us about the LUGGSURY cars Tesla is making. Or when Boris Johnson was due to EGG-ZIT the hospital after recovering from coronavirus. Holy hell.

Oh! Oh! There's more! "Valley Royalty" continues its merciless, unsubtle, status-seeking, vowel-hacking march across the alphabet. A is now O, E is now I, and I is now E.

"I love dell peckles"

"Tassting revealed this pellow was the softest of the bunch."

"The governor sent medical pockages and the effacts were unproven. Thus, the park of waiting recipients was shot. It was sod."

Yes, very sod indeed.

Anonymous said...

Pardon, that should be E is now A. Ah, the vagaries of anonymity.


Jay Livingston said...

Linguists are interested in understanding and explaining these changes in language. They know that there’s little they can do to stop them from happening even if they wanted to.

Language changes. Can we identify the point in history when it was correct. Prescriptivists in the 15th century were probably wringing their hands over the way the pronunciation of vowels was shifting.(How do you say, "This must stop" in Middle English?)

Variation in vowels continues today. I heard an interview with an Aussie rock musician. He was asked who he had listened to in forming his style. “Well, Bic of course,” he said, and I wondered what a cheap pen had to do with rock music. It took me several seconds to realize he was talking about Beck. But then, if I said “Beck,” in my American way, the Aussie might think I was talking about someone named Back.

Unknown said...

Cannot listen to him. Kills my ears every time.