Pawlenty's linguistic "southern strategy"?

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Tim Pawlenty's speech on March 7 to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition suprised many observers, and not entirely in a good way. Dana Milbank, "With Pawlenty's Iowa speech, a side of syrup", Washington Post 3/9/2011, wrote

… Pawlenty is campaigning as if he's some sort of Southern preacher. At the Faith & Freedom event, he was dropping g's all over the place, using "ain't" instead of "isn't," and adding a syrup to his vowels not indigenous to Minnesota. He didn't utter the word "jobs," made only passing reference to economic woes, and instead gave the assembled religious conservatives a fiery speech about God, gays and gynecology.

Or Jeff Zeleny, "Campaigning as All Things to All Republicans", NYT 3/12/2011

The knock on Mr. Pawlenty, according to conversations with voters, is that his speeches sound sincere but do not always sizzle. At a faith forum last week in Iowa, he displayed vigor. But the next day at the Statehouse, the talk among several Republicans was that it seemed he had suddenly developed a Southern accent as he tried connecting to voters by speaking louder and with more energy.

The political blog of Radio Iowa heard it too and noted, “Pawlenty seems to be adopting a Southern accent as he talks about his record as governor.” As he spoke of the country’s challenges, he dropped the letter G, saying: “It ain’t gonna be easy. This is about plowin’ ahead and gettin’ the job done.”

Similar commentary has included Michael Crowley, "Southern Fried Pawlenty", Time Magazine 3/14/2011, and Mark Zdechlik, "Pawlenty's drawl takes Minnesotans by surprise", Minnesota Public Radio 3/16/2011.

What Mr. Pawlenty actually said was

Valley Forge wasn't easy,
settling the west wasn't easy,
winning World War Two wasn't easy, goin' to the moon wasn't easy —
this ain't about easy.
This is about rollin' up our sleeves,
plowin' ahead and getting the job done.

The quoted phrase has a word-level edit distance of about 8 from the corresponding (bold face) stretch of 18 words, so we have the usual journalistic word error rate of about 8/18 = 44%. Dan Amira at New York Magazine noticed the mistaken transcription of getting ("Did the Times Drop Tim Pawlenty’s G for Him?", 3/14/2011), though not the rest of the transcriptional mistakes:

Frankly, we haven't heard Pawlenty speak enough to know if the folksy accent he exhibited in the speech was uncommon for him. But we're at least pretty sure that we hear Pawlenty say getting, not gettin', in the line plucked out by the Times. Watch the clip and determine for yourself whether the Times is nitpickin'.

Still, Zeleny was right about one of the two instances of g-dropping that he cites, which is not bad by the standards of linguistic commentary we expect from the mass media; and Pawlenty did drop a couple of other g's (goin' to the moon, rollin' up our sleeves) in the part that wasn't quoted, while giving us three velar nasals in other gerund-participles (settling the west, winning World War Two, getting the job done) for a "g-dropping" rate of 50% in this passage.

I need to note in passing that despite the conventional name "g-dropping", none of the pronunciations at stake actually involves either any g's nor any dropping of any segments at all. Rather, what's at issue is the difference between a velar nasal (conventionally written as -ing) and a coronal nasal (conventionally written as -in'). These two pronunciations have been in variation for several hundred years all over the English-speaking world — including in Minnesota!

I did a quick search for "Minnesota" on YouTube, and the first clip I checked was "My Favorite Minnesota – Camping – Campsites", narrated by Paul Sundberg, a park ranger who seems to be a native of the state. The first gerund-participle in his narration occurs about 42 seconds into the clip:

And uh we've taken her many times after that
and both my son and daughter have so many fond memories
of Boundaries Waters Canoe Area
growin' up in state parks

(For more detail about "g-dropping" in general, see "The internet pilgrim's guide to g-dropping", LL 5/10/2004. And for some thoughts about what g-dropping means in political discourse, see "Emphathetic in'", LL 10/18/2008; "Palin's tactical g-lessness", LL 10/18/2011; and also Julie Sedivy, "The language of power in the anti-prestige age", Psychology Today 3/2/2011.)

Of course, Pawlenty's possible "southern accent" has other aspects as well. Bob Collins at Minnesota Public Radio ("The southernization of Tim Pawlenty", 3/14/2011) gives some fairly persuasive examples of other putative changes, giving "old Pawlenty" and "new Pawlenty" version of several words and phrases, including these two versions of my time:

(Note that Firefox apparently won't play the audio clips in Bob Collins' story — try Chrome instead.)

Here's a YouTube video of Mr. Pawlenty's Iowa speech as a whole:


  1. maidhc said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 2:16 am

    If he turns out to be a contender, it will be interesting to see if his accent continues to morph.

    In one way, it's not surprising, since political campaigning in the US normally involves wealthy people who live in the sort of bubble available to wealthy people trying to convince voters that they're regular folks. Think of GHW Bush and his pork rinds. Or GW Bush's statement that "Americans are a patient people", which convinced me that he obviously has not driven a car on a public road for many decades.

    Sarah Palin and GW Bush are examples of politicians who changed their original accents for added folksiness, but these changes occurred before going into politics. Margaret Thatcher is well-known for changing her accent after entering politics. However, I can't think of an example of an American politician changing their accent mid-career.

    There may have been some in the 19th century, but of course there are no recordings.

  2. Joe said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 4:00 am

    While I think there is an obvious difference between the old Pawlenty and the new Pawlenty, I wouldn't say there is anything uniquely "Southern" about his pronunciation of /ay/. What exactly makes the "new" pronunciation Southern? (I don't hear that much of a difference between the new Pawlenty's pronunciation of "time" and Sundberg's pronunciation of "times," but I'm not listening to this in optimal conditions, so I may be wrong.) I was more struck more by his pronunciation of the vowel sound in "get" rather than the final consonant, but even that pronunciation isn't uniquely Southern. And he certainly doesn't have a wholescale realigment of the underlying phonological system that would characterize a change in accent.

    I think people were probably responding to the rhetorical use of parallelism, which people probably associate with southern preachers. Regardless, it's interesting how people (outside the dialect area in question) associate a change in the realization of a few tokens as indicative of a change in accent.

  3. michael farris said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    "despite the conventional name "g-dropping", none of the pronunciations at stake actually involves either any g's nor any dropping of any segments at all. Rather, what's at issue is the difference between a velar nasal (conventionally written as -ing) and a coronal nasal (conventionally written as -in')."

    I thought the difference was in the vowel preceding nasal. For me

    -ing has an unstressed vowel similar to that of 'seen' and the final nasal is velar or coronal more or less in free variation (with the coronal being more common)

    -in' has a syllabic coronal

    [(myl) The variation in vowels is less commonly noted, and rarely studied, so congratulations for observing it. However, it's an independent dimension. Just as there are people who pronounce "king" as [kiŋ] (with the vowel of "meet") and people who pronounce it [kɪŋ] (with the vowel of "mitt"), so there are people who have "-ing" in most cases as [iŋ] and people who have it as [ɪŋ]. The question of whether the final consonant is [n] (coronal nasal) or [ŋ] (velar nasal) is a separate one.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "syllabic coronal", but if you mean a syllabic form of the coronal nasal, I'd be suprised if any American really had one of those except in words like "buttin'".

    At least in the passage reproduced above, Mr. Pawlenty has "-ing"- sometimes as [ɪŋ] and sometimes as [ɪn], that is, he varies the final consonant but the preceding vowel is always relatively lax, i.e. more or less the vowel of "mitt".]

  4. AdamF said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 4:58 am

    The modern -ing suffix for making gerund-participles (or whatever you want to call them) comes from the fusion of two different OE suffixes:
    -ende for present participles, cognate with Modern German -end and
    -ung or -ing for verbal nouns (roughly gerunds), cognate with Modern German -ung (which is used a bit differently from the English gerund (or whatever)).

    So it's not obvious to me than /ˈrʌnɪn/ or /ˈrʌnən/ (runnin') is more historically correct for the result of the fusion than /ˈrʌnɪŋ/ (running), although the spelling has been (arbitrarily?) standardized on running, and I imagine the /-n/ pronunciations have been stigmatized mainly on the basis of the spelling.

    [(myl) Your observation about the history is certainly true, as discussed at somewhat greater length "The Internet Pilgrim's Guide to G-dropping", LL 5/10/2004, cited and linked in the body of the post. It's a bit more complicated, however, since some varieties of English retain the distinction between present participles ("we're buildin' a new house") and nominal forms ("the building is on fire"), and others generalize the n-form to both cases.

    In any case, it's often true that non-standard or dialectal forms are older, with the standard forms being the innovation; that doesn't change the fact that the standard forms are standard. This is not about what's "correct" (especially in a historical sense) but about who has the power, as Horace was the first to point out.

    And I don't believe that the spelling has much to do with it. The (historically older) form is stigmatized (by some) because of who stereotypically uses it and who doesn't, not how things are spelled. (Though it's true that the spelling reflects the standard merger.) ]

  5. GeorgeW said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 7:06 am

    Is there any evidence that we Southerners drop our g's (nasal fronting?) more than any other regional dialect? I have read about the variation related to class and register, but not region.

    [(myl) There are parts of the U.S. south where speakers maintain coronal-nasal "-ing" to a considerable extent even in local prestige varieties, and therefore even in formal registers (as long as the speaker is not trying for a less geographically-identified style). This is true in (most of?) Texas, for example, as you can see by listening to Molly Ivins as well as George W. Bush. You can hear the same sort of thing from Haley Barbour. (This may be a residue of the old "huntin and fishin" English aristocratic pattern, or at least an effect of similar causes — see here for some discussion of the once U-shaped social distribution in England.)

    Logically, the result ought to be a higher overall percentage of dropped g's in such speech communities. I don't know of any quantitative comparisons (though some may exist), but I'm fairly sure that there would be a difference. Anyhow, I suspect that this is the main reason that g-dropping is part of the stereotype of southern speech, with the other part being the general view, even among some southerners, that a southern accent is "a hick drawl".

    However, in the cited Iowa speech, Tim Pawlenty's overall rate of g-dropping is fairly low — about 25% in the portions of the speech that I've transcribed. This is only a little higher than the 15% that I found in a speech by John McCain — and no one wrote columns wondering whether he was trying to sound like a southerner.]

  6. [links] Link salad enjoys Orlando | said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    […] Pawlenty's linguistic "southern strategy"? — Uh huh. […]

  7. GeorgeW said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    myl: Thanks for the additional information.

    I noticed in the earlier post you linked, that Labov’s study was in New York and he found g-dropping, even in careful speech, at a higher or similar rate as that of Pawlenty except in the upper middle class. In casual speech, it was higher in all but the upper middle class.

    But, the fact that this is stereotypical southern does suggest that it may be even more prevalent in the South. Maybe southern is stereotypical non-standard, and g-dropping is marker of non-standard, therefore g-dropping is associated with southern speech.

  8. bfwebster said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    As I recall, the same issue came up for Hillary Clinton back in 2007, i.e., she was accused of 'putting on' a Southern accent when speaking in front of black audiences. ..bruce..

    [(myl) Yes, certainly.]

  9. Daniel Johnson said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    As a native Minnesotan, I've noticed a increasing occurence of southern "drawls" in the last ten years. My tendency would be to blame the "snowbirds"- those citizens who like to spend the winters in Arizona or Florida and the summers in Minnesota. The classic "Fargo" Minnesota accent is a product of small town and rural northern Minnesota and doesn't really have much of a foothold in the urban areas.

    –Daniel Johnson

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    Is there any empirical research on AmE speakers whose speech varies between velar and coronal that indicates one is more likely than the other in particular phonological contexts (e.g., depending on the the presence/absence of a particular sound in the onset of the following syllable, or on whether the following syllable is stressed v. unstressed)? If so, that could be a useful diagnostic in this sort of situation – if the 25% of the time where a particular politician went coronal is in contexts where that's comparatively more common, then it would be particularly meaningless, whereas if the politician went coronal where the velar is more common but velar where the coronal is more common, that might be some evidence of a conscious attempt to affect "folksiness." Sort of a species of hypercorrection.

    [(myl) Here is a paper that looks at word frequency as well as some of the other factors that influence g-dropping frequency. I'm not aware of any work on conditioning by phonological context, but that doesn't mean there isn't any.]

    On the broader recurrent issue of dubious journalistic descriptions of speech variation, see: " Worse, some of the performances from the Anglo-American cast are pitched to the point of incoherence in those nasal passages where upper-class twangs are thought to dwell." (Ben Brantley's NYTimes review of a new production of Stoppard's "Arcadia.") I'm not sure how I would characterize the sound of actor-attempting-to-sound-British-posh, but I don't think that "twang(y)" would be the first word to hand.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    For an instance of Gov. Pawlenty being on the higher-prestige side of regional-speech-based stereotypes, see this blog item by Bill Kristol headlined "T-Paw v. Hee-Haw," where the latter refers to Gov. Barbour of Mississippi:

  12. Chris Waters said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    Side note: my copy of Firefox (Debian Iceweasel) had no problems playing the Bob Collins clips.

    [(myl) There's no reason, I learned, why it shouldn't work, as the audio comes from a Flash app. When it didn't work for me in Firefox, but did in Chrome, I jumped to the conclusion that this was an instance of the problem with Firefox being unwilling to play mp3 clips in HTML5 audio tags. But I was wrong — it was something hung somewhere in my copy of Firefox.]

  13. m.m. said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    J. W. Brewer said,
    March 18, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    On the broader recurrent issue of dubious journalistic descriptions of speech variation, see: " Worse, some of the performances from the Anglo-American cast are pitched to the point of incoherence in those nasal passages where upper-class twangs are thought to dwell." (Ben Brantley's NYTimes review of a new production of Stoppard's "Arcadia.") I'm not sure how I would characterize the sound of actor-attempting-to-sound-British-posh, but I don't think that "twang(y)" would be the first word to hand.

    Some time last month, there was a discussion about how the layman uses descriptors like 'nasal' and 'twang' to describe accents, and found that any accent can be nasal or twangy, so the descriptors are fairly useless apart from saying "sounds funny".
    I wouldn't put it past any journalistic description, bar a linguistic journal, to actually describe the speech in a way that actually that conveyed something meaningful. [ie. "it was peculiar that his /aɪ/ diphthong was monopthongized."]

  14. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

    Does anyone else hear him say "gitting the job done"? Is that a Southern thang?

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    If Tim Pawlenty is indeed adopting a Southern drawl (twang?) to advance his career, he won't be the first Minnesotan to have done so. Bob Dylan was another.

  16. Liz said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

    Shouldn't think there are many Brit politicians who haven't changed their accent – the Old Etonians in one direction, the social climbers in another. Most of us change registers a lot anyway – doesn't that apply in the US?

    And Margaret Thatcher didn't just change her accent, she changed a lot more – from high pitched shrill to low pitched faux statesmanlike.

    Sorry, I know non-linguists are not supposed to join in.

    [(myl) But contributions from non-linguists are welcome! I'm really sorry if you've gotten a different impression.]

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 6:51 am

    Thatcher had already changed her accent significantly by the time she reached office. Grocers' daughters from Lincolnshire don't as a rule talk like this:

    Then there was the second change in her style of speaking that took place during her time in office. I don't think this was a matter of accent, which remained high RP but not aristocratic (no huntin and fishin), but more the lowering of pitch that Liz mentioned, as well as slowing down considerably.

    You can see a direct comparison on this website

    The author notes that the change was deliberate – she underwent voice training at the National Theatre to give her more gravitas; and he also remarks that depending on the pitch of their voices, female politicians are in danger being interpreted as either emotional and 'shrill' or overly severe ('schoolmarmish' was the term often applied to Thatcher).

  18. GeorgeW said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    Pflaumbaum: Ahh, a film opportunity – "The Iron Lady's Speech" or maybe, "Dolittle becomes PM"

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    The Lady's Not For Turnin'

    One other notable – and bizarre – change was her adoption of the 'royal we':

    "We have become a grandmother".

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    Thanks to myl for the link to the Abramowicz paper, which does address my question insofar as it states that various prior studies have indicated that the variation between velar and "apical" (= coronal, I assume) "is subject to little or no phonological conditioning, which led Labov (2001) to observe that the variable is more of a morphological
    alternation than a case of phonological reduction." Not sure if "observe" is the right verb there, but interesting to know. Also interesting to learn that "g-dropping" is especially common with the words "something" and "nothing" (but, by omission, perhaps not "anything," but that could be because the final syllable sometimes takes secondary stress).

    [(myl) I don't know of any large-scale studies of the effects of word stress, in the -ing word and in the one following, or of the effects of phrasal position. That doesn't mean that such studies don't exist, but for now I'll keep an open mind about what they'd find.]

  21. D Sky Onosson said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    I haven't done any spectral analysis on this, but my impression of "g-dropping" has always been similar to what Michael Farris has noted. In fact, I've always heard the difference as only involving the vowel, and not the final nasal consonant at all.

    Specifically, I have always noticed the distinction as being between [ɪn] and [in], with the latter only rarely substituted by [iŋ]. For example, in my dialect the second syllable in "thinking" is pronounced identically to "keen", aside from the aspiration on the /k/, perhaps.

    Perhaps this may be more specific to Canadian speech, I'm not too sure. But the alternation between the velar and non-velar seems barely noticeable to be me, whereas the vowel distinction stands out loud and clear.

  22. AdamF said,

    March 19, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    @MYL: thanks for the comments.

    Since we all know that "g-dropping" is an incorrect description of this phenomenon, has anyone come up with a better name for it?

  23. michael farris said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    D Sky Onosson : "I've always heard the difference as only involving the vowel, and not the final nasal consonant at all."

    To explain my earlier comments a little better.

    In my speech, I perceive keen and king as a minimal pair for [n] and [ŋ], kin and king are not a minimal pair.

    For the -ing ending (gerund, participle, whatever) I perceive my natural pronunciation as [in] with [iŋ] as a less common free variant (possibly a spelling pronunciation)

    For the version of the ending written -in' I have either a syllabic nasal (alveolar, coronal, whatever) or as short a schwa as is possible so that tickin' rhymes with thicken.

    There's also an intermediate between the two extremes, maybe [ɪn] as heard with Pawlenty's plowin'.

    So there are three possible vowels [i], [ɪ] and schwa/nothing. The velar is only possible with the first (and then less common than [n]).

  24. GeorgeW said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    As I think about it, the variation in my speech is not just the nasal in /-ing/, but the vowel as well. I have [iŋ] in my more formal register and [In] in the less formal. In fact, I have trouble pronouncing the tense vowel with the alveolar nasal in this suffix.

  25. D Sky Onosson said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    @ Michael Farris:

    I concur very much with your assessment.

  26. Around the Web | Savage Minds said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    […] Language Log writes on the deliberate affectation of a Southern accent in Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty. There's a follow up here. […]

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