Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin's accent

Only now getting a chance to note something that floated around in the media about Sarah Palin yesterday. I've mentioned fivethirtyeight.com, a very engaging political blog, here before. In their assessment of Palin yesterday, they mentioned her 'accent' twice early on:
  • Another big question: how will SNL and Jay Leno react? That Palin has a fairly discernible accent will become part of her caricature.
  • a young, attractive, kooky, female governor from Alaska who has an accent straight out of Fargo
Certainly her voice will get caricatured; it's distinctive and easy enough to identify, I think. But Wasilla is a long ways from Fargo (or, more to the point for the movie, Brainerd, Minnesota).

Alaska has been described as lacking a distinct regional accent:
The non-Native part of Alaska, 100 years old with the anniversary of the gold rush in 1998, hasn't had time to develop an Alaskan accent. It's a melting pot of the melting pot, with a population made up of odds and ends from all over the United States.
This isn't the place for a big discussion of 'new dialect formation', but an Alaskan accent may well be still forming. At any rate, there's little written about American English in Alaska as far as I know, save for some lexical stuff (see here).

I know and have known Alaskans, and recall them as sounding typically western, not like people from the Upper Midwest. I haven't yet heard enough of Palin to say anything about her speech. I stole a couple of minutes from pressing work yesterday and looked on YouTube but the sound quality was pretty bad and nothing struck me as really clear.

Any insights into her speech? If not, stay tuned …

Update, Thurs, Sept 4: See the new post by one of our contributors, here.

53 comments:

Wishydig said...

well fwiw -- some of the features I've noticed are the chicago onglide of æ: a slight tensing and perhaps raising of the 'bit' vowel. I thought I heard some pen/pin merging too so maybe just a general raising of front vowels. slightly simplified /o/ but not quite as simplified as the Minne-Kota /o/. Also what sounds like (occasional) Canadian raising on the /aI/ diphthong even before a 0-coda or before voiced consonants in a word like "supplies". And the easiest feature for SNL to mock: dark rhoticity and shorter pre-R vowels in words like "here".

Wishydig said...

...not that SNL should mock it of course...

sissy chrissi said...

Ya, gosh she sure does sound like she is from Chi KAA Go, or maybe Minnesoooota, don'tcha know.

Part of her inflection is a Mother to Child tone. The sing songy voice of trying to help one understand what she is saying. It is refreshing in that she is not professionally trained.

It becomes very accented when she reads key words that are highlighted.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks to both of you. Yeah, Wishydig, I finally heard a little snippet and the rhoticity jumped out at me.

My overall impression was mountain west. I saw today that she's got strong Idaho connections, and maybe that's a source.

I guess it hadn't struck me as particularly sing-songy, but I only heard a snippet. Might be time for some acoustic analysis by some of the sound folks around here ...

Ben said...

I've heard many native Alaskans talk, and while I don't think there's enough distinctiveness that a trained ear could recognize an Alaskan, I've always found the way Alaskans talk strongly reminiscent of (1) Canadian English and (2) Rez talk. But both of these dialects share features with Upper Midwestern, especially the very pure, undiphthongized long vowels, but also some Canadian raising, as well as light, almost palatal /l/s.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. Yeah, vaguely Canadian-sounding and vaguely like 'Rez English' would fit my impressions of Alaskans. And that would yield a connection to the Upper Midwest impressionistically.

I talked to a daughter of the Upper Midwest yesterday and she grimaced at the idea that an Alaskan would be taken for sounding anything like "Fargo", then added that anything odd or different gets associated with this region.

Rob said...

I lived in Western Alaska for four years. Her accent sounds nothing like a Native Alaskan accent (at least not a Yup'ik, Cup'ik, Inupiaq or Athabascan one), nor have I ever heard a similar accent in Alaska. Being Canadian, I can also attest that she doesn't sound Canadian at all. My best guess is Midwest.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. This might be consistent with what we find often in 'new dialect formation', where in the first generations you can get a lot of variation. With all the work happening on that topic, maybe Alaska is a place to explore.

By the way, using lower case 'native' was aimed at signalling 'born there' as opposed to 'Native'. (Her husband is part Native, I think, but not her, that I've heard.) Should have made that clearer.

tulugaq said...

I have to admit I haven't heard her speak very often (I tend to read her speeches in the news instead). However, she definitely does not have a Minnesotan accent. I did my undergraduate studies in Minnesota and that dialect is entirely different from anything in Alaska.

I've never noticed any Canadian raising in Palin's speech, either. Although we Alaskans are often mistaken for Canadians (by our own countrymen!), we don't actually have Canadian dialect features. Like Mr. Verb suggests, general West is a better description.

For what it's worth, there are two main dialects in Alaska. The general one that's pretty much what everyone on the west coast has, and what's often called "village English." Village English is reminiscent of "Rez talk" because it developed in similar situations (although in most cases without the reservations).

Also, I agree that Alaska would be a fantastic place for dialect and language contact study. Not only is the English dialect relatively young itself, there's a lot of language contact among large groups of non-English-speaking immigrants, including Tagalog, Korean, and Samoan speakers. Add that to the features from the indigenous Alaskan languages, and you have a very interesting dialectal situation. I've been trying to get some fellow grad students interested in a group research project on this but no luck yet. I'm hoping to delve into it after my dissertation.

Mr. Verb said...

Excellent, Tulugaq! Folks, you read it here first (well, maybe somewhere else first, but you read it here): We have someone planning to do Alaskan English. I hope the diss is coming along!

sissy chrissi said...

Great site & a fascinating subject.
I am from MN and like others were insulted by Fargo..."We don't talk like that". But I am afraid we do.
When my Mother was alive and I would call home, I would have that accent for the rest of the day, by golly. LOL.

OK, today I heard her say "Todd"
her husbands name. It sounded like "Taaad", reminding me of Gilda Ratner talking to Bill Murray during the old SNL skit, again reminding me of Chi kaaa go.

According to Wiki, she was born in
Idaho, and her family moved to Alaska as an infant.

My best guess now is she probably grew up with other transplants, as I would guess there is a large portion of the population that is not native.

Again, thanks or sharing yur knowledge and time.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks much. The bio you describe does sound like a 'new dialect formation' situation, if she grew up among other transplants. Apparently, if I understand it, in such situations, you end up with people who have all kinds of features and mixes of features.

More generally, I'm really curious about how people from the region and outside it perceive Upper Midwestern accents. We have folks here at Wisconsin who could just put out some really nice studies on this ... you know who you are, so get to it!

tulugaq said...

Oh, Alaskans think the "Fargo" accent is just as amusing as other non-Midwesterners. Even if they aren't thinking of it in comical terms like from movies, we notice when people use it (in other words, it's quite salient).

The "differentness" of Canadian English is also pretty salient to us Alaskans. There's a news anchor on one of the local Anchorage TV stations with strong Canadian raising, and even after 20+ years it's still very noticeable.

Lately I've been hearing a lot of monophthongization of [ɛi] to [ɛ] in Alaskan commercials, so words like "sale" sound like "sell" to me. I don't know if that's an emerging Alaskan dialect feature, though, or whether the people who do it are recent Alaska transplants who brought it from their own dialects. Definitely something to include in future studies!

(In case anyone is wondering about my own dialect background, I was born and raised in Anchorage in the late 70s. My father moved to Alaska in 1965 or so from southern California, but he actually has a strong Iowa accent like the rest of his family (who moved to CA in 1950). My mother's lived in Alaska since she was an infant, and her dialect is pretty much what I would expect for anyone on the west coast. As kids, we noticed how different dad's dialect was but nothing sounded out of the ordinary about mom's.)

Rob said...

So the consensus is: It's still a mystery. We have, however, been able to rule a few accents out: it's not Canadianish or Village (or Rez Talk). Alaskan Eskimos have very characteristic speech. They'll say villitch instead of village, and Anchorage turns into Ankritch ("You want to go Ankritch?"). There are many other peculiarities in the Eskimo dialects that I won't go into. The fact that her husband is part Yup'ik is a non-starter: He's only 1/8 Eskimo so it's very unlikely that he would have inherited a dialect from one great grand parent. In my experience, non-Native native Alaskans (Gussaks, as the Eskimos would call them) tend to have rather generic non-localizing American accents (whatever that means).

The most likely source of Palin's accent is Idaho. She was born there and went to college there. Can anyone confirm this impression? I have no idea what an Idaho accent sounds like. In fact, I not aware of ever having met an Idahoan.

Alexis said...

tulugaq --

So words like "sale" sound like "sell" to me

If you're only hearing this before /l/ I think it's a possible developing change in the Western dialect area generally. I have it, and I'm nowhere near Alaska.

James Crippen said...

One thing about “Alaskan English” is that there are actually several dialects, although none have ever been systematically described.

Southeast Alaska has two dialects, one which is “Indian English” or “Tlingit English”, and is the result of children learning English from L2 English speakers (their parents and siblings). This dialect is dying rapidly, and is spoken mostly by people over 30, although I’ve heard a few children with it in recent years. The other dialect is a fluid merge of features in Canadian West Coast (Vancouver, etc.) and Pacific Northwestern English. Transplants of course have other dialects, and the local ones are hard to find in Juneau, but easier in somewhere like Wrangell or Haines. There was also a distinct dialect spoken in Petersburg by L1 Norwegian speakers, which carried on through the 20th century, but is probably mostly gone now.

Southcentral Alaska has a couple of dialects too. Locally born Anchorageites usually sound to both midwesterners and westerners like they’re from “somewhere else” that nobody can pin down. This may be because their speech retains features which are lost in other American English dialects, like the cot-caught distinction (now merging in Anchorage, I think). There’s some slight raising for some, but nothing as clear as that in Canadian languages. The English spoken in the rest of Southcentral Alaska (Kenai Peninsula, Whittier (“everything is shittier in Whittier!”), Prince William Sound) is largely the same as around Anchorage, but differs somewhat among older people. (Well, maybe not Whittier, it’s pretty small.)

Interior and Western Alaska have a couple of dialects as well. “Alaska Native English” can safely be used as a cover term for things like “Village English”, but there are some minor differences between people from Athabaskan and Eskimo backgrounds. As with Southeast Alaska, these dialects have formed from L2 English speakers who serve as the primary source for the L1 of their children, most of whom are not L1 speakers of an indigenous language. Whites speak a dialect essentially the same as in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

White children raised in an Eskimo or Indian village will almost always be bidialectal. The “Alaska Native” dialect is looked down upon just as is Pidgin in Hawai‘i, but moreso since there is essentially no literary support for it. It is a dying dialect in many parts of the state, however it is still quite strong in Western Alaska and in villages in the Interior.

The dialect which has caused so much fervor here is what might be termed “Mat-Su Valley English”, after the Matnuska and Susitna Valleys where it is spoken. Palmer was a colony settled by immigrants from Minnesota and surrounding regions, and hence they brought their characteristic dialect with them. It has been merged over time with the predominant white dialects to form Mat-Su Valley English which differs only somewhat from generic Alaskan English. Sarah Palin speaks this Mat-Su Valley English, as do some friends of mine who grew up in Palmer and Wasilla, but I have other friends born and raised there that speak Alaskan English instead, so it’s not homogeneous. This again is due to pressure from the English of surrounding areas, particularly Anchorage.

No linguistic work has been done on any of the English dialects in Alaska. I did a fairly extensive literature search last year and came upon only a handful of articles from educators who were concerned with “stamping out” Alaska Native English, and ensuring that children learned to speak English “correctly”. The phonetic descriptions were amateurish, as would be expected from nonspecialists. There has been some okay lexical documentation of Alaskan English varieties, but nothing professional.

My opinions are based on linguistic training and having lived in Alaska for nearly all of my life, except for the past couple of years in Hawai‘i. But they’re just opinions, not backed by any instrumental work. I’d love to do a dialect survey myself, but I’m more worried about working Tlingit (pronounced /ˈklɪŋkɪt/ in English), which is severely endangered. And I don’t have any formal training in English dialectology anyway.

sissy chrissi said...

Watched her speech tonight and when she said "Minnesoooda" I almost had red wine come out my nose !
Certain words just jump out like "Squaaaller" "Caaause"
Every now and then one comes out & here is my new theory.

It is a nasal thing more than anything. Is that hereditary, learned or both ?

I am not an academic, and I do enjoy reading all these posts.

Susan said...

I'm from Minnesota, and she sounded like out of staters sound when they're trying to sound Minnesotan.

Anonymous said...

I thought I heard "miranda" when she said g-e-n-e-v-a .

sissy chrissi said...

Susan

I now think it might be a

Vocabularic Virus

Don't Google it, I just made it up.

Let's see if McCain says

"Ya you betcha"

sissy chrissi said...

Mr Verb

You may have to hire a staff, get a larger server and start appearing on every news outlet known to man.

anonymous...you have, like the others here, forced me to become a lifelong learner, so off I go to google and Wiki the words you used.

Josh said...

I lived in Alaska for 19 years, all throughout my school years AND two years of college.

NOBODY in Alaska talks like Palin. Her accent is either FABRICATED (for some inane reason), or her parents maybe talk that way.

BUT, if she grew up in WASILLA, ALASKA, she shouldn't have ANY ACCENT that would be different from any kind of western accent.

I'd LOVE to hear her explanation for her accent, it's total mystery.

...people from Idaho don't talk like that either...I've got LOTS of family from around there.

sissy chrissi said...

I would like to say that I
had/have
Zero intent of making this a political subject, and I hope
we can keep this "Above Board".

I truly am facinated more by
the "tones" of words than by the
actual "written" meaning.

Editrix67 said...

Palin sounds EXACTLY like Principal Victoria on "South Park."

Anonymous said...

Oh geez, yah ya know, she sure does sound like she was born and raised in Fargo. Oofta.

I don't know how anyone listening to her speak can possibly take her seriously with that accent. I kept cracking up - like sissy chrissi mentioned, it's all about the sing songy voice.

Well, at least this gives us something to look forward to...the first SNL skit!

Anonymous said...

Hi - Born and Raised in Spokane Washington here - just 60 miles from Mrs. Palin's Sandpoint Idaho Birthplace.

I can assure you, that Mrs. Palin's accent is not from Idaho at all.

To me it sounds very midwestern..

Anonymous said...

I just went and listened to some older interviews - they sounded completley western, no real accent at all.

Seems she picked up a little Minnesota while in the neighborhood...

Aaron T. said...

Hey, I've lived in Eagle River, Alaska all my life, except to go out of state for school -- Eagle River is about halfway between The Mat-Su Valley (described above) and Anchorage, although it's cultural ties are much stronger toward Anchorage. From what I can tell, Gov. Palin's dialect is similar to those of life-long Alaskans who were raised by parents from the midwest, as was pointed out, mainly in the Palmer-Wasilla area.

I would be very interested in studies in Alaskan dialects, although I imagine the results would be confounded by the continual influx/outflux of residents that the state experiences, particularly in the Anchorage area.

sissy chrissi said...

Just saw Wolf and another announcer on CNN laughing how someone said she sounded like Jean Lundegaard (Fargo)

Thank you CNN & all here, I thought it might just be me.

TootsNYC said...

"Seems she picked up a little Minnesota while in the neighborhood..."

I do that!

I grew up in southern Iowa as the daughter of a woman raised in Mora, MN, who was bound and determined that HER children were not going to be speaking in the vaguely hill-billy accent of Iowa's southern tier of counties.

So kids from a couple of counties north of me were always amazed that I had "no" accent.

But let me spend 3 days visiting relatives in Minneapolis, and bingo! I've got that rounded accent.

My sister moved to Mpls from Colorado Springs, and within about 3 months, she sounded like a MN native.

I pick up a Wisconsin accent when I visit there, too.

Some people are more instinctive mimics than others. My sis and I are like sponges.

(Though I'd have thought that Mrs. Palin would have been speaking mostly w/ non-Minnesotans at the convention. But maybe at the hotel, and restaurants, it's seeping in)

Anonymous said...

The best test would be to hear her sisters and parents dialect. She has training in broadcast journalism. Notice how she says "legislaTORS" while most folks will say "legislaters." She has a tendency to over-emphasize words, I have notice this from her many press conferences as a goverNOR.

Anonymous said...

James Crippen: Your answer re Palin's Minnesota accent is a winner! - you noticed that Wasilla is right next to Palmer, which was settled by immigrants from Minnesota - everyone in the country is wondering about this - and you nailed it!

Anonymous said...

i am a native minnesotan and my first impression was that her accent sounds like a blend of minnesotan and michigan (upper peninsula)with some chicaaaaago influences as well as some canadian thrown in. i know many people with the typical mn accent (yes, just like in the movie fargo) and i wince when i hear it... it sounds less educated and cultured to me than even a thick southern accent (sorry, southerners)- but palin's is a little different. it is hard to pin down. i wonder if her accent is her own creation and isn't influenced by people around her- just like some minnesotans that i think sound southern- it seems to be just the way they talk. and i agree, snl will have a field day.

Anonymous said...

(1) As an Idaho native of 20+ years, I have to tell you, we don't sound like that.

(2) She trained as a journalist. One of the things that most journalists are trained to do is speak without an accent. Which I am told she did when she worked in braodcast news. So why an accent now?

Bosox said...

Maybe she is the Wobegon Candidate . . . ?

Could it be that, to serve as a long term agent-in-place, Garrison Keillor some years ago planted in Wasilla someone like the blonde from Prairie Home Companion ? The one who does the ketchup ads and the intro to Guy Noir? "A dark night . . ., Guy Noir, private eye?" Perhaps planted there along with a small supporting cast to boost her onto the Wasilla Council, then Mayor? Provided with the Sarah Barracuda legend?
Just a short step from there to take in a majority of the small populace of Alaska, then John McCain, and now half the country . . . .
Perhaps all will be revealed at, say, the debate with Biden when she will drop the mask, tell all (with and without the accent) and show herself as a mere ghost of the fiendish imagination of Keillor. Thus proving that in the 21st century, all politics is performance. The accent is the telltale clue . . . .

Anonymous said...

I live in Minnesota, and she definitely doesn't have a Minnesotan accent. I place her with a Mountain accent.

Anonymous said...

I think she sounds.....you got it....sounds like Julia Roberts when she speaks.

She looks identical to Tina Fey...sometimes I think Tina Fey looks like like Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin looks like Sarah Palin.

Anonymous said...

I am from the state of Utah, and her accent sounds very familiar to me and similar to the accent spoken in my state. I would have to agree with the person that said she spoke with a Mountain West accent.

Chus said...

Funny!: Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator

Anonymous said...

Ugh, I'm so sick of people mistaking Alaskans as mountainmen on every single talk show on this earth! Seriously. We don't eat mooseburgers everyday, nor do we travel by snowmobile. Fairbanks, Alaska is like New England in a way. Oh, and I'm sick of hearing Sarah impersonators, too. Just thought I'd get that off my chest.

Anonymous said...

Check out this dialect map of the United States:

http://www.imagedump.com/index.cgi?pick=get&tp=510627

One can see how dialect divisions are not based on State lines, but due to how speakers settled in the USA as they went West. Alaska is probably a blend of dialects of various English speakers from many areas and may never form one united dialect in the future, but may stay separate just as they have in the lower 48.

Anonymous said...

REWARD: Can Anyone Anywhere Find One Person With a Palin's Accent and Colloquialisms?

http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=132x7331523

Phil said...

Sarah Palin has a "Minnesotan" accent. I am from Minnesota and I will admit that she does. However, Minnesotans who live in Minneapolis or St. Paul are far less likely to have this characteristic accent. Whoever said that they picked up the Minnesotan accent by spending three days in Minneapolis must be over exaggerating or just lying. Can't be possible. I've lived in Minnesota all my life and I don't sound remotely close to Sarah Palin. But her accent does not sound foreign to me. She's got the Northern Minnesotan accent.

But..is that a bad thing? Most Minnesotan city-slickers won't admit it, simply because they don't really like Sarah Palin much, and are embarrassed that Minnesota gets made fun of so much. And the accent in "Fargo" is completely over exaggerated. Its not far from the truth, but its exaggerated.

Anonymous said...

Palin's dialect does sound Fargo-like to me as an Ohioan but what grabbed me is her overuse of adjectives and other "fillers." What do any of you think about her use of what I call: "Pageant Girl Talk." By that I mean a habit of overtalk to eat time or B.S. when asked a question during the opinion portion of judging.

Rob said...

"what grabbed me is her overuse of adjectives and other "fillers."

Every word that comes out of her mouth is a filler. She has never, ever, said anything substantive in her entire life, annoying accent notwithstanding.

Dallin said...

I'm from Alaska, and I've never heard anyone talk like her before, I thought she'd grown up somewhere else

Anonymous said...

Remember...
ANYONE who does not sound exactly like the king/queen of England has an accent...

Anonymous said...

Right on....
It's amusing how everyone is the center of thier own little universe....it's everyone ELSE that has an accent...

Anonymous said...

I have an Upper MidWest accent and I am living on Long Island now. My children's friends think my accent is Fargo-y and "cute." My children's schoolmates ask them if they are from Texas. Adults ask if I am from UpState (NY), Boston, or even the South.

Hearing the voices of people from the Upper MidWest warms my heart.

I noticed that Sarah *generally* gives the impression of speaking like someone from the Upper MidWest.
Even though her voice repels some people, I'd bet that some people are attracted to Palin because of her voice.

There's an extra element in her speaking, though. Her word order is unusual. So is mine. (So was Lawrence Welk's.)

Is this due to some Germanic/Nordic influence? Is it due to being a person who thinks visually or musically, rather than verbally?

Eleanor Roosevelt had a "funny" voice, too. I wish I knew if Americans focused on her way of speaking, rather than on the kindness of her heart or the meaning of her words.

Mr. Verb said...

Interesting point about word order. There are certainly some regional patterns in word order and Palin may have some of those, but we don't know much about them yet. Do you have examples?

By the way, Welk was raised in a heavily German community and I believe he might have spoken German before English. His accent and general speech patterns definitely reflect some regional features and features of that kind of upbringing.

Anonymous said...

Hi all, this is a pretty vague reference, but I saw the film "O Palouse!" a while ago and the lady on it who is a rep from the drama department some university in Idaho sounds a LOT like Sarah Palin-the funky pronounciation and all! I have met several people from WESTERN Idaho (where S.P is from) and they sound like her. I'm pretty convinced she started saying her "R"s harder from the Alaskan influence though.

Just FYI-I grew up in South East Alaska and Washington State.

Anonymous said...

Nah. I'm also from Idaho. I've been all over the state and I have not meet a single Idahoan with that accent. There are some weird redneck accents in Idaho but they tend to have more of an Appalachian sound to them whereas Sarah Palin's accent is much closer to a Minnesota/Dakota accent. The "O Palouse" example is a bad one because the much of the University of Idaho faculty are not originally from Idaho. I'm guessing the lady mentioned had north midwestern roots. For the most part Idahoans have pretty clean accents like you'll find in Seattle or the rest of the Northwest. Any strong or odd accent you'll find will be of Anglo derivation like you'll find in the South rather than the Norse accents of Minnesota and Sarah Palin.

Anonymous said...

She does sound like people from Sandpoint or Bonners Ferry. Palin is from Sandpoint. The Idaho "expert" may not have traveled that far north in the state.