Palin's tactical g-lessness

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I really like Mark's "empathetic -in'" in place of "g-dropping," though it may require a public campaign to make the substitution. Just by way of a footnote to that post, I did a "Fresh Air" piece on accent and authenticity last week which ended with some comments on the development of Palin's g-dropping (with video clips) and concluded she has learned over the years to do it in roughly the same sorts of contexts that Obama does. Here's the last part of that piece:

As a part of our moral slang, authentic is laced with condescension. It usually implies quaintness or local color — it's a word we use for creole cooking, not haute cuisine. And when people talk about authentic accents they're not thinking of the way people speak on the TV news or middle-class suburbs, but of the speech in places like South Philly and Fargo, not to mention Hot Springs, Arkansas and Wasilla. Nobody would ask whether Brian Williams's accent is authentic– actually a lot of people would say he doesn't have an accent at all. (When I hear someone described as having no accent, I think of those pinkish Crayola crayons we used to have that were labeled "flesh.")

So like Bill Clinton, Palin can signal authenticity simply by refashioning her original accent, rather than acquiring a new one. You can actually hear how this developed if you pull up the Youtube video of Palin as a 24-year-old Anchorage sportscaster fresh from her broadcasting classes in college. She wasn't in control of her accent back then: she scattered the desk with dropped g's: "Purdue was killin' Michigan"; "Look what they're doin' to Chicago."

It's strikingly different from the way she talks now in her public appearances, not just because she's much more poised, but because she's learned how to work it. When she talks about policy, her g's are decorously in place — she never says "reducin' taxes" or "cuttin' spendin.'"

But the g's disappear when she speaks on behalf of ordinary Americans — "Americans are cravin' something different" or "People… are hurtin' 'cause the economy is hurtin'." It's of a piece with the you betchas, doggones and the other effusions that are meant to signal spontaneous candor.

Now there are clearly a lot of people who find this engaging, but I can't imagine that anybody really supposes it's artless. What it is is a stone-washed impersonation of a Mat-Su Valley girl. I wouldn't be surprised if Palin and her friends perfected this way back in high school. There's no group that's so unselfconscious that its members don't get a kick out of parodying their own speech: most Brooklynites do a very creditable Brooklyn, and every Valley girl can do a dead-on Valley girl. And with all credit to Tina Fey, she wouldn't be so brilliant at doing Sarah Palin if Sarah Palin weren't so good at doing herself.


  1. Henry Higgins said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    Unfortunately I can't bear to listen to Fresh Air any more because Terri Gross's habit of never releasing word-final /t/ s drives me nuts.

  2. Ben said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    The difference that stands out most to me between the1984 clip and the recent ones is the change in the quality of Palin's /l/s–she seems to have lost her typically Alaskan (as well as Canadian) light /l/ during the intervening years.

    But to address the actual topic of the post, I'm not so sure her formerly ubiquitous "empathetic -in's" are due to her being "green behind the ears" back then; I think the context of sportscastin' lends itself naturally to a more demotic register.

  3. Lance said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

    I'm a little puzzled. Jesse Sheidlower said that

    Palin's frequent dropping of the final G in -ing words …[is] characteristic of general Alaskan English (and Western English) rather than the specific Mat-Su Valley speech.


    In this Palin interview with Katie Couric, you can hear her enunciating her –ings and her yous more clearly in responses where she appeared to have a ready answer, and returning to her more natural –in' and ya when she seemed stumped, which suggests that Palin may have been deliberately attempting to minimize her dialect features for that audience.

    That seems to stand in fairly sharp contrast to Nunberg's statements here, which I read as suggesting entirely the opposite: that left to her own linguistic devices, she keeps the "g", and when she's paying attention to what she's saying, she drops it.

    Now, I do agree that she does some conscious code-switching, and I do think that part of that is the "g"-dropping. But it seems to me, especially based on Sheidlower's claims, that the "g"-dropping in the "ordinary Americans" contexts is not a decision to change her accent, but rather a decision to stop changing her accent. I think Nunberg is ascribing a lot of calculated motivation to Palin where, if not none, at least a lot less exists.

  4. J.C. Gorman said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    Just an observation. Individuals who attend institutions of higher learning do their best to lose any trace of their "normal" speech patterns lest they be considered by their peers as some what rustic. New words appear in their conversation as well as a change of cadence and tone. That is part of the educational process. Upon returning to their home turf they easily slip into their old speech patterns, if they can overcome their pretensions. No where is this more easily observed then in Italy with its regional dialects and telltale accents. You are literately judged and classified by the first sentence out of your mouth. One example, might be, well educated Neopolitains who truly love their language and all it connotes. They would never use any form or accent of the language in a formal setting or job interview. So it seems culture and history play into just how and when an educated person chooses to use language. Most people have little choice and are burdened by the language they were first steeped in. Gov. Palins accent appears to be one of the reasons she has inspired such over the top reactions by the elites of this country. Many seem to be fleeing their own parochial past. They somehow they think it is some indication of her intelligence or lack thereof. Says more about them then her. Judging a book by its cover or an individual by their language skill is tricky business best left to the selfrighteous and judgmental among us.

  5. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    Jesse Sheidlower has one theory as to why Palin dropped more g's when stumped; the SNL writers had another when they had Poehler as Couric say "Forgive me, Governor, but "It seems to me that when cornered, you become increasingly adorable." (See at 6:40) I think the idea that people "slip into" or "lapse into" their "authentic" dialects in certain situations when not making an effort to speak a more standard variety reflects a folk theory of how this works. By now, I would suppose someone Palin doesn't have to make an greater effort to pronounce her g's than to drop them, and there's no reason to suppose her g-dropping is a matter of "returning" to her "true accent." It's deliberate up and down.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    This thread has been cut into pieces because there are multiple main entries each with their own comments, but if you look at the comments a couple of entries ago, you'll find a comment from Eyebrows McGee and another from me, suggesting that a lot of this variation in pronunciation is not something most people can control very well. As a long-term American resident in the UK, I certainly don't have full control over the voicing of intervocalic /t/ any more, though in some very approximate way my adoption of a voiceless pronunciation is a matter of accommodation to British English. I very much doubt that Palin's g-dropping habits are "deliberate up and down", as Geoff N. maintains.

  7. Amy Vaughan said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    I was really interested to notice that Old Sportscaster Sarah Palin's g-dropping seems to be restricted to verbs only – so we get doin' and hittin', but fighting and training. This interests me because I come from a region of the US where dropping gs is fairly commonplace if not standard, but I can't recall whether or not it is universal to all occurrences of -ing or restricted to verbs like Palin's seems to be.

  8. Amy Vaughan said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    Whoops, meant to note up there that the hockey player she was talking about was suspended three times 'for fighting' and that the next team was in 'spring training', otherwise my comment doesn't make much sense.

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    Geoff Nunberg: It's deliberate up and down.
    Bob Ladd: …a lot of this variation in pronunciation is not something most people can control very well…

    Like much of the debate about consciousness and intentionality, this (old) argument may not be a very useful one. We can explore in a statistical sense which aspects of the context actually predict people's speech habits, and we can investigate the neural mechanisms that underlie these patterns. Or we can treat people as rational agents making linguistic choices in the light of their experience and their goals. Pretty much any data, it seems to me, can be viewed in either way — it's more a matter of stance than of fact.

    Does Barack Obama choose to drop certain g's in order to project empathy with ordinary people? Or does he feel empathetic — or wish to seem empathetic — about the content of certain phrases, and automatically engage certain speech patterns as a result? Or does he just have speech habits that associate the -in' variant to various degrees with certain words, phrases and concepts? I'm not convinced that these are coherent questions; but to the extent that it makes sense to make such distinctions, it seems likely that all of these three ways of thinking about what he does — and some other ones as well — are to some extent true at the same time.

  10. Rubrick said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    Pretty much any data, it seems to me, can be viewed in either way — it's more a matter of stance than of fact.

    This is probably not strictly true; I suspect brain-imaging technology might be just advanced enough to shed some light on the matter (at least if you could convince a candidate to give a radio address while in a scanner). But I agree that the data we actually have available doesn't help much.

  11. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    I agree with what Mark says — there are different ways of putting this, and I could accept any of the variant formulations he gives. The point I was trying to make is that there are certain ideological implications in the asymmetrical way people often talk about code-shifting, where people are said "lapse into" their "natural" speech when they aren't making an effort to speak in a higher-status variety or register. If you think that way, then only Palin's g-full speech is deliberate (or maybe I should say simply 'purposeful'); her g-dropping is a restult of fatigue, inattention, or whatever.

    What I think is interesting is that we don't run this line of analysis the other way. When Hillary Clinton has been using forms like "runnin'" and "goin'" to establish rapport with, say, a working-class Southern audience, then starts saying "running" and "going," nobody is tempted to speak of her "lapsing into" or "falling back into" her native or natural pattern of speech, which with regard to this feature comes closer to what we think of as the standard. (Nobody ever "lapses into" standard English.) That's the assymetry I was challenging with "up and down" — an attitude that implies a familiar if unwitting condescension to low-prestige or "colorful" forms of speech. (This, by the way, is one problem I see with the description "g-dropping," which makes it easy to assume that the velar nasals are harder to produce and that the shift to an apical nasal betrays laziness or slovenliness, since you're dropping a sound.)

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 2:41 am

    Thanks for the useful clarification, Mark. I agree with Geoff that all three ways of describing this kind of variation are potentially valid.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 6:26 am

    Rubrick: I suspect brain-imaging technology might be just advanced enough to shed some light on the matter [of consciousness and intentionality in linguistic choices]…

    As Jake said to Brett, isn't it pretty to think so?

    More seriously, unless I've missed some new techniques, I'd think that brain imaging would be pretty far down the list of methods now likely to clarify these issues. Did you have a specific approach in mind, or just a general faith in lite-brite phrenology?

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