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The Biblio Files

The Biblio Files
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
January 01
We (Steve and Helen) irresponsibly gave up our promising careers in aviation and bookselling over ten years ago. Now books seem to have taken over our lives. We frequent libraries, bookstores, and thrift shops in search of interesting books. We buy/swap/sell, but mainly, we read. We both wear glasses and have been mistaken for librarians.


Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 6, 2008 1:36AM

Is That a Genuine Alaska Accent? (Plus Quizzes!)

Rate: 25 Flag

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!


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This is a great summary, biblio, better than many of the individual source articles.
This was a good read. I also enjoyed the quiz, which correctly pegs me as having a "neutral" accent -- reflecting that I sometimes sound southern, sometimes northern, and sometimes just something else entirely. Everyone thinks I'm from somewhere else.

So I have something in common with Sarah Palin after all!
Interesting article. It all seems to go along with the Eliza Doolittle/Palin metaphor I've been hearing lately.

Thanks for the quiz too. "Neutral" accent here.
Quiz was mesmerizing. Tricksy, but cool. I'm relieved to be neutral also, and the map it brought up placed me here in Ohio. My husband says Palin reminds him of Minnesota, where we lived for too short a time.
I just moved back to the lower 48 after having spent 7 years living in Alaska. I heard Sarah speak in person at various oil and gas events. I don't know about her accent (I'm from WI and she sounds a bit like me), but I know she was born and raised in Alaska. I also never heard her speak like a female Gomer Pyle, the way she did at the debate. That was obviously a put-on, fake persona. I personally have heard her make very articulate speeches without the down-home, aw-shucks kind of comments and without all the mugging for the camera. She was obviously thoroughly coached and was acting a part the entire time she was up there. It made me sick. I never liked her in Alaska because she is as stubborn as they come and vindictive if crossed, but that debate was the final straw. She is obviously all blind ambition and no substance, and the fake persona thing is just another indication of her dishonesty.
Thoroughly enjoyed the analysis, and also Maryann's comment. I came out neutral on the quiz, but I have moved around a bit in my life. When I go back to the area of my childhood, I'm always surprised at the accents, as if I never lived there. But after I stay there several days, my wife comments that the accent has started to return to my speech.

Alaska must be quite a mixture of accents, with its residents a mix of Pacific Coasters, Northern Midwesterns, Rocky Mountain folks (like Palin's family), and Texas oil field workers.
Just a follow-up to Procopius' comments. Alaska is a true melting pot. You will frequently hear British accents in Anchorage, thanks to the BP presence. We also have many Pacific Islanders, Scandinavians, and Asian folks. And of course the Alaska Natives speak many different languages as well and have various accents. I read that the teachers in the Alaskan schools are challenged because they have many pupils who do not speak English and have to contend with so many different non-English languages being spoken by the students.
This is a fine, instructive post that interested me very much. I have a different take on the topic. When I listen to Sarah, I hear not so much accent as Oscar Hammerstein lyrics, and I’ll wager she sang a lot of them growing up:

I got a beautiful feelin'
Ev'rythin's goin' my way....
The breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree
And a ol' weepin' willer is laughin' at me....
All the cattle are standin' like statues.
They don't turn their heads as they see me ride by,
But a little brown mav'rick is winkin' her eye....
Southern! Not a shocker.

Yeah, her accent is upticked and put on for the camera. Who could doubt it?
Great stuff.

After watching how openly contrived and her attempts were at painting herself "Joe Sixpack," "hockey mom," "maverick," etc., I wouldn't put affecting an accent past her.

I'm off to take the quiz now.
Neutral here, as I apparently should be in Columbus.
Hey, I only missed four of the accents! I have a better ear than I thought.

Also, a couple of them weren't really fair--like there's one woman who clearly has some African tinge in her voice but she's a resident of like, Norway or something, so they called her accent "Norweigian." It wasn't.
Per the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, there were over 200 families from Minnesota who settled in the valley around Wasilla during the Great Depression. So while it's a few generations removed, her accent does have Minnesotan roots. Contrived as all the rest might be ;)
I swear I read that Sarah Palin was born in Kansas. If so, her accent would fit with a mid-western speech type. I do agree with others, though, that she might be affecting it just a wee bit to appeal to "Joe Six-Pack" (whomever that is).

I took the test and it says that I have a Western accent. Interesting, since I've never been west of Ohio (and in fact was born and raised in Ohio). I've lived near Philadelphia for the past 27 years but it obviously hasn't influenced my speech. Of course, the real test for that would be the pronunciation of "water" (WAH-ter or WOO-ter) and "orange" (OR-ange or AR-ange). Ohioans would say the former in both cases.

Neat post!
That was fun. 20 points. Got 6 right and guessed that the Scots dude was from Glasgoo :-)

Ju peeple shou' share jor score in da game :)
great post. and fun quizzes.

What I fail to understand is how Palin received a degree in broadcast journalism with that accent. I arrived in Texas with a bad N'Awlins' accent and almost left with a worse Texas accent, but had it beat out of me in the journalism school.

I tend to also pick up accents depending on circumstances. I need to retool after a visit to N'awlins. But, I think her "idiolect"is completely put-on for the cameras and crowds. Also, I'm having trouble not reading it "idiot-lect", in her case.

Quiz results -
Me - barely Southern, changed two answers (I as in "Ah'll be" and "roof") and came out Neutral.
Guess where from - 25
although I too found it tricky - is there a significant difference in accents between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and if so, is this expected knowledge?

But fun, none-the-less!
Lpsrocks, I know what you mean about picking up accents. Everytime I visit my parents (or "my folks," as I tend to say when I'm around them), I always slip into a little bit of a Texan accent. My friends from out of state find this highly amusing, because I'm half Filipino and it's startling for them to see me bust out into a "y'all."
She brings so much affectation. Her ideolect is sooo Chamber of Commerce. I'll bet every small town has a gal who's really comfortable in front of a microphone. Put that pizazz into awarding the door prizes that no one had done until she. I quizzed as a northeasterner. The hilarious part of the quiz for me was "horrible." My good friend in town, who has both OK and TX roots and I have laughed over that one for almost thirty years.
Great post. Actually, her accent and really, her entire persona reminds me of no one so much as Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary) in "Northern Exposure". In fact if you watch the first part of this clip
you may see an amazing resemblance between old Holling Vinoceur (John Cullum) and Johnny Maverick as well.

I tested as "Providence," which is in fact the only place I have lived in the US where I never had any trouble making myself understood to the locals, even though I had PS-DS* and looked like a troublemaker.

*The closest approximation I can make to the Providence pronunciation of "pierced ears."
HA! I Love that PS-DS. And the DS rhymes with dias, as in buenos dias, which make sit even more global. Purrrrfect.

I'm tagged as Western, but like many, when I go home, I fall into whatever the Plains states are....

(When I was a kid, I lived in the Midwest; by the time I was nearly growed, I was in the Plains States. No wonder I moved away.)
oops, makes it.

vs. make sit.

though I gotta admit, I kinda like make sit.

Bogey! You make sit dere down now! Make sit! Make sit!
Well, it said I have the Western New England accent that news networks go for. Since this is one of the few areas in which I have never lived, I guess I watch too much news. (Born in Baltimore, raised in NC, TX, NC, OK, lived in MD, NC, CA, and AZ.) No wonder I'm tired.

Regardless, I cannot stand to listen to that woman speak. My blood pressure goes up just listening to her. I always had the lowest blood pressure, 90/60 or 100/70 and when I went emergency on Saturday, it was 159/95. I about fell off the exam table. My neighbor says it's because I'm injured/sick but I blame Sarah Palin and this whole election. I'm going to need a nice padded cell to relax in when it's all over, and that's even if (when) Obama wins.
Maryann, it's great to have someone who's been in Alaska contribute to this conversation. Did you ever hear any accents in Alaska that sounded like the Palin accent? Even a little? Where in Alaska were you?

We each got about half the accents on the second quiz. The American accent quiz said I was Western (born and raised in California) and that Steve is Northern (military brat who lived in NY, TX, FL, CA).
I'm the proud possessor of a Northern accent. Not the Chicaga one, but the western New England one.

I'm gonna be a great politician someday if I ever learn how to not say what I'm thinking and stop being blunt.
This is fascinating. I've always found accents intriguing. Alas, my husband has already lost most of his Austrian accent.

Many moons ago, when I was a studying performance for the stage I had two semesters of dialect and speech. If we had a regional accent we were taught how to neutralize it. (I was told that mine was already neutral) We studied hundreds of dialects, both regional US as well as international accents. I have to say that I am quite sure that we never touched on Alaska. Well, ok, it's true there aren't an abundance of famous plays set in Alaska........
A non-OSer wrote this to me about Palin's speech: "It's combo valley girl talk turned into cheerleader Rethug mom-- not teen valley but adult valley, with that North midwest Minnesota/Wisconsin accent full of the don't cha knows, merged with Isn't That Special Dana Carvey Church Lady, and hyperaggressive nasty Rethuglican lady talk like Anne Coulter."

Sounds just about right to me, both politically and linguistically!
Go to this URL and listen to her in a debate from the Alaska governor's race. She sounds "normal."
Bill, thanks for the link. She sounds midwestern, maybe, the only remarkable thing I heard at all in that clip was the "feel" sounds like "fill" vowel. No Minnesota, no gosh darn its. Curious.
Not curious to me. Just more evidence of the Big Lie in action.

And should I refer to you as The, Biblio or Files? ;-)