Palin's accent

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Sarah Palin's accent has elicited a great deal of curiosity, and now Slate has posted a well-researched analysis by the OED's Jesse Sheidlower. Here's the first paragraph:

Since Sarah Palin was selected as the Republican candidate for vice president, many people have made comments about her unusual speech, comparing it to accents heard in the movie Fargo, in the states of Wisconsin and Idaho, and in Canada. Some have even attributed her manner of speaking to her supposed stupidity. But Palin actually has an Alaskan accent, one from the Matnuska and Susitna Valley region, where Palin's hometown, Wasilla, is located.

A more impressionistic take, with commentary by Rosina Lippi-Green (author of English with an Accent) appeared yesterday on Politico.

Sheidlower's piece relies on local knowledge from James Crippen, a linguistics student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa who hails from Alaska. (He's Tlingit, and his research is on his ancestral language as well as other languages of the Northwestern Pacific Coast region.) Crippen posted an insightful comment on Palin's accent about a month ago on Mr. Verb, which thus far has been the go-to blog for discussion of the Palin-olect. Nice to see the linguablogosphere getting out in front of this story.


  1. Wayne Leman said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    I hail from Alaska, also. Some of my ancestry is, like Todd Palin's, Yupik Eskimo. I grew up not far from to the Matsu Valley and we visited there frequently. Sarah Palin is not speaking any Matsu accent that I have ever heard. I have many friends and relatives who live in the Matsu Valley and none of them speak like Sarah Palin.

    With so much interest in Palin's accent, some credible dialectologists need to go do the necessary groundwork in the Matsu Valley, among enough subjects, to determine if there is a Matsu dialect. They also need to do the same study of the village ("bush") dialect spoken in Dillingham (Bristol Bay area) where Todd Palin is from. I do find it interesting that Todd has a slight Alaska Native accent (much less than average, perhaps even less than mine), but nowhere nearly as unique as Sarah's accent.

    I'm beginning to wonder if Sarah's accent is affected, that it represents her attempt to speak like "country-folk" do, the blue collar folks and farmers that Sarah feels an affinity with ideologically. It's not a new accent for Palin, since she had the same "twang" when she was a sportscaster many years ago. As an Alaskan, it reminds me of the speech of people who are trying not to sound like the "sophisticates" who live in Anchorage. She's a Valley girl. People who live in the Matsu Valley are even proud of being called "valley trash."

    Many of us observed both Hillary Clinton and Barach Obama take on the accents of their audiences when they were speaking in the South of the U.S. or in African-American churches. But that was a temporary phenomenon. Sarah Palin's seems longer lasting although I think her accent seems stronger when she is being interviewed. Thorough analysis of her accent would require us to observe how she speaks to Todd and their children when she is not aware that anyone else is listening in.

  2. Wayne Leman said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    After posting my comment, I read Crippen's comment, linked to in your post. I think he actually has a better grasp of Alaskan dialects than I do, although I spoke accurately about what I have observed. Crippen's observations are just more thorough.

    I also commented earlier on Mr. Verb. It's been an interesting discussion.

  3. anchorageite said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

    The Matanuska Colony origin story, with its connection to Minnesota, explains it all. See the scant information on Palmer, Alaska in Wikipedia.

    Another element of Alaska vocabulary Sheidlower might have noted is snowmachine, meaning snowmobile. Todd Palin is a snowmachine racer, and the appearance of the word in connection with Sarah's acceptance speech caused some confusion in the East.

  4. Rosina Lippi said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

    The Slate article is pretty good, though I would disagree with the characterization of Palin's simplification of the final /ing/ cluster as code switching. That marker functions all across the country. It does have something to do with prosaic features, but socially it's far more complex than education or class or location or anything one thing you might point to.

    I spent a long time talking to the reporter who did the Politico article. He interviewed a variety of people widely and at length, so it's unfortunate that he didn't write a more detailed piece. Even given its length, he managed to provide a good overview.

  5. Tulugaq said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

    With all due respect to Jesse and James, I think the analysis of Matsu Valley dialect is pretty far off. I was born and raised in Anchorage (left for college & grad school), and her dialect sounds distinctly non-Alaskan. People are assuming her accent/dialect is representative of the area when most Alaskans I know wonder why she has such a strange accent, too. She shouldn't be the case study for a typical southcentral Alaskan dialect, in large part because I suspect many features of her speech are "folksy" affectations as Wayne pointed out.

  6. Forrest said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    My knowledge here is very limited … so reach for a large grain of salt. But I've lived in Seattle ( "the gateway to Alaska" ) for five years, and the Alaskans who venture down south don't sound like Palin.

  7. Freddy said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:36 am

    I'm hearing these things in her language:

    * her diphthongs are unusual (for me at least): there seems to be a vowel lengthening on the second half of each diphthong. Boy comes out Boyeee. Pain comes out Pay-een. etc…

    * When she says words like /deal/, it comes out /dill/.

    * ing -> in (running>runnin)

  8. Lazar said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 1:06 am

    One thing is that she doesn't seem to have Canadian Raising.

  9. anchorageite said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:05 am

    Her accent is not representative of an area, it's representative of a population within an area. The Valley has several accents, just as Anchorage does (Tongan English, for example). Maybe it's not a good idea to call her population's accent "Mat-Su Valley English" because that implies that everyone in the Valley speaks that way.

  10. Chris said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    Palin was born in Idaho and moved to Alaska as an infant. Now, obviously she learned language after moving, but if she learned it from her family, who also lived in Idaho before moving to Alaska… actually, I don't know to what extent children are influenced by their family's accent or dialect when it's different from the majority of the surrounding population. Is that a possible influence?

  11. LangGeek said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    No, as the piece points out, people rarely get their dialect from their parents, but rather from their peers. Palin doesn't have any marked Idaho features anyway.

  12. Kate said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    OK, when I first read this post, I thought "Who cares about Palin's accent?" But then I couldn't stop thinking about it while watching the debate.

    I now have a theory too, which is based on a kind of reverse engineering: My best friend's mom has an accent JUST LIKE Palin's. I'm speaking here mostly of the first two features Freddy mentioned: Boy as boyee and deal as dill. Also: tone of voice…to an eerie extent. I will add that she simplifies "ing" sometimes, but it's definitely situation dependant – for example when she's talking down to someone. (Not that I would immediately attribute THAT to Palin too!)

    For the purpose of this unscientific speculation, I'm going to assume that if Ms. C, who I know from Eastern Washington, has some biographical details that are similar to Palin, then their accents most likely developed in a similar way.

    Ms. C grew up in California, then moved to Eastern Washington for college. She moved back down to California to work for a high-tech company during the Silicon Valley boom in the '80s, and was then transferred back up to Eastern Washington, where she lives to this day. She currently works as a nurse, and she was a cheerleader in high school and college.

    Palin was born in Idaho, moved to Alaska, then skipped around during college, starting in Hawaii then moving back to Idaho and Alaska. As far as I have heard, after college she stayed in Alaska and began working in local politics. We all know what she's up to nowadays, and during high school she was active in sports, and went on to be a beauty pageant winner as well.

    Based upon that, I think both of these women solidified their accents and speech habits during college in Eastern Washington / Idaho. Their accents are socially constructed – self-image and status has more bearing on them than geography, though there is something generically "Western" about them in the same way that there is something generically "Clever, pretty girl" about them.

    LangGeek, I do beg to differ that there is nothing Idahoan/Eastern Washington about this accent. In a certain class of girls in my high school, saying "rilly" instead of "really" and pronouncing "cute" more like "kyoot" went along with uptalking.

    Seems like their moms must have been doing it too.

  13. Lal said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    NPR's All Things Considered on October 2nd featured a segment from Bill Labov on this topic as well:

  14. Daddy G. said,

    October 4, 2008 @ 11:47 am

    I posted a link to this LL piece, and of course the Slate article as well, over in (SF/fantasy author) Peter David's blog on the thread where he live-blogged the VP debate (for a generally Democratic leaning fan base, though that's irrelevant). Someone there naturally brought up the old aversion to Ms. Palin's pronunciation of "newkyular" as an implied indication of lack of intelligence.

    I then postedthe LL and Slate links just for the sake of information and (I hoped) to point out that certain unfamiliar pronunciations and dialects don't necessarily indicate lack of intelligence (as you also state here).

    Someone posting as "Mostly" then responded with:

    "The article Daddy G linked to was informative, but a little off when it comes to code-switching. It's not necessarily something done for effect; it's just a way people who speak or have been exposed to multiple dialects or languages talk. They can use words from one language while speaking another, or switch languages between sentences. It can certainly be done for emphasis, but largely people who code-switch are doing it as part of their normal speech pattern."

    Now the Slate piece specifically said:

    "Depending on the context, such an accent can make a person seem stupid or uneducated or, conversely, honest and folksily trustworthy—often at the same time. Some people exploit this for effect, emphasizing and de-emphasizing dialect features to prompt a particular reaction. Linguists call this code-switching."

    So my question is this…

    Does the term "code-switching" apply ONLY to those instances when the practice is consciously employed for effect? Or is the term more generally applied to the switching itself, regardless of whether or not there is conscious control involved? The commenter who responded to my post there seems to me to be under the impression that the term is more general than the Slate piece implies to me.

    Thanks. (I hope this comment displays properly, though it doesn't seem to be previewing quite right. Here goes…)

  15. Kevin D. said,

    October 7, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    I was born and raised fewer than ten miles from where Sarah Palin grew up. No one talks like that who grew up in the Matanuska-Susitina Valley region. No one.

    I find it amazing that NPR's linguistic consultant confirmed Palin's accent as distinctively Alaskan, especially when the Alaska populace is one of the most linguistically diverse in North America — due to the size of the state and its highly transient population — and Wasilla specifically has one of the least.

    This issue really eroded my confidence in NPR's consultants. What we do not need is more misinformation.

  16. Tulugaq said,

    October 7, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    Kevin D, that's my impression as well. I may be from Anchorage and not Mat-Su, but I've certainly interacted with umpteen Mat-Su residents in my lifetime, including family members who were born and raised there. I hear nothing in Palin's speech that is characteristic of Mat-Su dialect, if it can even be said that Mat-Su has a distinctive dialect separate from southcentral Alaskan (which would be shared by Anchorage). Alaskan dialects have been very poorly/incompletely documented and analyzed in the past and now folks are scrambling to have an answer.

    Also, people keeping referring to the fact that people rarely get their dialect from their parents. The key there is rarely – not never. It's sloppy methodology to say, without empirical evidence, that because people rarely adopt dialect from their parents, therefore Sarah Palin's dialect must be the same as her Alaskan peers. My father is a great example of how someone can – however unlikely it may be – get his dialect from his parents. His parents moved to southern California from Iowa when he was three years old, but he has a very strong Iowa accent to this day. None of the features you'd expect from someone raised in California. So call me silly, but I'm not prepared to say that Palin didn't get any dialect features from her parents simply because it's rare.

    It's unlikely any of us will get the chance to study her dialect in person, not gleaned from broadcast television clips, but we can study Alaskan dialects. Choose representative speakers, preferably not ones trained in broadcast journalism and not suspected of putting on a "folksy" demeanor for the cameras, and then we'll have a more accurate understanding of the dialect(s) in question.

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