Now that we've all had a chance to listen to Sarah Palin, scripted and unscripted, it's time to talk about her accent.
I will admit that when I heard her accent, I was surprised. I haven't heard many Alaskans that I know of, but I don't recall any of them with the distinctive speech patterns that Sarah Palin is now famous for.
Many people have commented that Palin reminds them of the Minnesota-accented character played by Frances McDormand in the movie Fargo. Harvard linguist Stephen Pinker, author of several excellent books on language, wrote in yesterday's New York Times about her accent. He noted that the Mat-Su Valley, where Palin has lived most of her life, was settled by Minnesotans during the Depression. But Minnesotans in Minnesota will be the first to tell you that Palin does not sound like a Minnesota native.
That can be explained by the fact that language doesn't stand still and while the settlers of seventy years ago had Minnesota accents, their children and their children's children have been gradually developing their own accents. Alaska has a population of people from many other States, in addition to a relatively small population of native Alaskans, so the Alaskan accent has many influences.
Evidently, Alaska accents have not been studied to a great extent. As soon as we heard Palin speaking at the Republican Convention, we grabbed our copy of Walt Wolfram's American Voices: How Dialects Differ from Coast to Coast. It covers accents in the South, the Northeast, in Oregon, Utah, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Hawaii, in Newfoundland, but not a word about Alaska.
According to an article in Slate by an Oxford English Dictionary editor, Westerners think Palin sounds Midwestern and Midwesterners think she sounds Western. The article also dismisses the notion that Palin inherited or picked up her parents' Idaho accent (Palin was born in Idaho, but her parents brought her to Alaska when she was an infant.) Children generally acquire their accents from their peers, not from their parents.
Rosina Lippi-Green, a linguist and novelist (who, incidentally, blogged for a time on Open Salon) says that Palin's accent is more feminine than we are used to hearing in our women politicians. And Pinker notes that Palin code-switches, that is, she drops her g's and sounds more folksy when she is talking to friendly audiences or when she is sure of herself, and tends to enunciate more in unfamiliar settings or when she is not as sure of her answers. We all do this to a certain extent.
Without more examples of Wasilla accents to compare, it's difficult to separate Palin's accent from her idiolect, her individual speech mannerisms. Her pronunciation of “feel” so that it sounds like “fill” is most likely part of her accent, while her tendency to say “gosh” and “doggone it” is probably part of her idiolect.
Another habit that seems individual rather than general is the way she uses “that” and “those.” “People are craving that straight-talk.” “[Secretary of State Rice is] trying to forge that peace.” “[We have to make sure that Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad] and are not allowed ... to use those nuclear weapons.”
Linguists have different opinions on the significance, or lack of significance, of the habit. As neither a linguist nor a psychologist, all I can do is speculate irresponsibly. I think it's a verbal way of putting your hand on someone's forearm. It's like saying “You and I understand each other. I can confide in you.”
Here's a quiz that tells you what kind of American accent you have.
This quiz tests your ability to identify accents from all over the world. It's tough – you've been warned!