What Palin's gonna do

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Philip Gourevitch's "The State of Sarah Palin" (New Yorker, 22 September, p. 66-7) quotes from an interview with the vice-presidential candidate:

"We're not just gonna concede to three big oil companies of this monopoly–Exxon, B.P., ConocoPhillips–and beg them to do this [build a natural gas pipeline] for Alaska," Palin told me last month in Juneau. "We're gonna say, 'O.K., this is so economic that we don't have to incentivize you to build this. In fact, this has got to be a mutually beneficial partnership here as we build it. We're gonna lay out Alaska's must-haves. Parameters are gonna be set, rules are gonna be laid out, a law will encompass what it is that Alaska needs to protect our sovereignty, to insure it's jobs first for Alaskans, and in-state use of gas'"–her list went on.

What stands out here — for a linguist, anyway — is the five occurrences of the spelling gonna for written standard going to. I'll take Gourevitch's word that this is the way Palin pronounced the expression, but why did he transcribe it that way?

(Note that in this one-on-one interview, in private, Palin appears to be much more fluent and much less disjointed than she struck most people as being in her recent television interview with Katie Couric, reported on here in Language Log.)

First point: gonna is an entirely standard, though informal variant of going to, at least in American English. (Similarly, wanna for want to and gotta for got to. As for hafta and useta, these spellings represent the pronunciations almost every has most of the time, modulo the reduction (or not) of the final [u].) Instances of gonna from standard-English American speakers in relaxed contexts are all over the place, and it's not hard to find the occasional instance from such speakers (even prestigious ones) in formal contexts. Normally we'd expect such occurrences of gonna to to be represented as going to in print.

Second point: special spellings of pronunciations come in several flavors. In an earlier posting, I distinguished "eye dialect" in a narrow sense (spellings like wimmin that represent the prevailing pronunciation but nevertheless mark the speaker as rustic, folksy, non-standard, uneducated, etc.) from "dialect spelling" (like athalete and nucular), which represents a non-standard pronunciation. Hafta and useta are eye dialect, period, but the "N variants" gonna and wanna and gotta are in an intermediate category that's very close to eye dialect and distant from dialect spelling: the N variants aren't necessarily the usual ones, but they're standard, in variant with the "NT variants" going to etc.

Third point: the distribution of the NT and N variants is very complex. There are ties to class, region, age, and sex, as well as more micro factors, and there are interactions among these factors. The frequencies of the variants differ depending on context, both social and linguistic. And individual speakers differ considerably as a matter of personal style.

For whatever reason, Palin appears to be a fairly high N-variant user — at least in the context of a relatively relaxed one-on-one interview/conversation with Gourevitch (that's an important qualification). There's nothing wrong with that.

Fourth point: as with straightforward eye dialect, using non-standard spellings like gonna for standard (but informal) phonological variants paints the speaker as folksy, rustic, etc. (Mark Liberman has called such spellings "standard non-standard orthography".) The writer thus covertly injects a social judgment about the speaker into what is framed as a report of an interview about experiences and opinions. In the pages of the New Yorker, N variants convey a negative judgment (because the magazine's readers are likely to hold to the belief that the N variants are, if not simply non-standard, that is, "incorrect", then at least rough, "hick", variants). In other publications, N variants might be understood differently.

It makes a difference not just HOW language is reported, but also WHERE it's reported.

Fifth point: something Gourevitch did not say is that Palin is crafting her speech to be folksy, approachable, etc. That is, he didn't attribute motives (conscious or otherwise) to her choice of variants. I applaud that. As a  general principle, I believe that most of the linguistic choices people make are below the level of consciousness (choices of lexical items and idioms are sometimes exceptions), and, though they can sometimes shed some light on the speaker's or writer's intentions and beliefs, analysts should be cautious, and generous, in their interpretations. (Yes, I know, there are snakes out there.)

Sixth point: gonna is a lot like so-called "g-dropping": [n] for [ŋ] in participial -ing forms (hopin') and some indefinite pronouns (nothin'); see the Language Log summary discussion (including an explanation of why the ordinary-language label g-dropping is inappropriate) by Mark Liberman here. The similarity extends to the treatment of "g-dropping" in reporting the speech of public figures like George W. Bush.

In the variationist literature on the phenomenon (and it's huge), the variable in question is named ING, with the variants [ŋ] and [n]. Like gonna etc., the [n] variant is standard but mostly informal. Its distribution is incredibly complex, but the bottom line is that most native speakers of English use the [n] variant on occasion (even if they don't think they do). If you never use the [n] variant, you risk marking as odd (over-formal, prissy, foreign) — this even though the variant is stigmatized.

Meanwhile, there's been an ADS-L thread that sees "g-dropping" as a Sarah Palin thing — some judge her to be nearly categorical in her use of the [n] variant, and some view it as deliberately folksy. I'd guess that her favoring of the [n] variant is authentic; plenty of people heavily favor the [n] variant, especially in informal contexts (like Palin's sports reporting on television some years ago, which was cited on ADS-L, with a link to a recent Telegraph story). I'm also dubious about the claim that she's a categorical [n]-user for ING. Here's the sentence (from Palin) that immediately follows the one quoted above by Gourevitch:

In the past, she said, "Alaska was conceding too much, and chipping away at our sovereignty.

Notice: conceding, not concedin', and chipping, not chippin'. Now, I wasn't there, but I'd put a small wager on Palin's having used the [ŋ] variant in conceding (and probably, though I'd be somewhat less sure, in chipping as well, simply because variants tend to persevere, especially when they're in parallel contexts). The point is that concede is a formal lexical item of English, and for over fifty years it's been known that such items are much less likely to be produced with the [n] variant than more everyday vocabulary.

This is not to deny that Palin probably is a heavy user of [n]. But so what? The variant is popularly stigmatized, but unfairly so. As far as I'm concerned, she's entitled to use it, and the rest of us shouldn't be judging her on that.

[None of this has anything to do with my opinion on Palin's fitness as a candidate for high political office, of course.]

I'll end with some observations about the clip of Sarah Heath (as she was then) doing sports reporting (available in the Telegraph story).

First, as far as I can tell, she has the [n] variant for every instance of the present participle verb form in this clip. There is, however, one -ing word there that has [ŋ]: training in spring training, and that's a noun. The fact is that "g-dropping" is not just the mechanical replacement of word-final [ŋ] by [n] in an unstressed syllable, but is confined, in a systematic way, to certain instances of word-final [ŋ]; for most (though not all) speakers, only verb forms and indefinite pronouns are affected, while other words (even nouns, like training in spring training, that are related to verbs) are not. Even in her sportsy style, Sarah Heath seemed to be sensitive to this restriction.

Second, the clip is in a British news column, where the writer (Toby Harnden, the Telegraph's U.S. editor, who is British) says she spoke with "a thick Alaska accent". Now, American listeners in general have trouble locating Palin's accent geographically (except in negative terms: she's not from the South or Texas, she's not from New York City, Boston, or Chicago, she doesn't talk like a Valley Girl, etc.), though some ADS-L posters judged her accent to be much like that of the Pacific Northwest, and staff writer Robert Barnes (not a linguist or dialectologist) in the Washington Post went for the Upper Midwest:

If there's such a thing as an Alaskan accent, it sounds on Palin a lot like the Upper Midwest, a more subtle version of the actress Frances McDormand in the movie "Fargo."

Palin regularly and seemingly deliberately rounds off words that end in "g" — the economy is "hurtin' " and needs "fixin.' " After McCain answered a question the other night, she asked, "Can I add somethin'?"

(Note the "deliberately" from Barnes. And the fact that the examples from Palin are of verb forms — of frequent, ordinary verbs — plus an indefinite pronoun.)

Americans aren't very good at locating Palin's accent, so it's astonishing to hear a British writer confidently placing her accent as Alaskan. Possibly he's just responding to the Americanness of her speech, combined with the lack of features associated stereotypically with specific regions of the U.S. Then, since she is in fact from Alaska, that's what "Alaskan" must sound like. Or maybe he thinks that the [n] variant of ING is actually specific to Alaska, in which case he's not listening to the speech of people around him.

But it's likely that this is another instance of the Local Color Illusion, discussed here in connection with a book reviewer's reference to "the curious grammar of Ohio" in a collection of short stories he was reviewing. So far as I could tell, there are almost no relevant regional variants in the characters' speech. Instead, there are many informal variants (including gonna and gotta, though very few instances of [n] for ING) and a fair number of variants associated widely with the working class (over much of the U.S., and, sometimes, more widely in the English-speaking world). Then, since the characters are (mostly) from Ohio, their language must illustrate what the dialect of Ohio is like.



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