Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sarah Palin's accent and American dialects

The Palin-accent wildfire has pretty much burned through the blogosphere at this point, and Mr. Verb seems to be carrying a lit match and a gas can, but his earlier post didn't seem to shed much light. (Typical — he likes questions more than answers.)

Palin's speech from last night is available at for download and the quality is good, so you can hear easily things and it's good enough for basic acoustic work. Just a few observations. First, she's got the classic western/northwestern features, things that are found elsewhere, but that many of us associate with the region. The first two examples illustrate that, and the next two are Upper Midwestern patterns that people have commented on, including on ads-l.
  • Low back merger (aka cot/caught merger). She talks about 'sons and daughters' and the /au/ there is a low vowel.
  • Tense/lax vowel merger before coda /l/, what's often exemplified with fill/feel being/becoming homophonous.
  • Her long or tense mid vowels, /e:/ and /o:/, don't look as monophthongal as they seem to sound to a lot of folks, including me at some points. This is often identified specifically with the whole 'Fargo' thing.
  • She often has final devoicing or final fortition, including on -s. Acoustically, it's sometimes even more striking than what we find with Wisconsin speakers we've looked at, and that's saying something. The phrase below is "sons and daughters going". (You only get the beginning of 'going' here.) The 'daughters' has a really devoiced -s on there.

'Sons' is presumably 'passively voiced' due to the following vowel.

But the big question is of course what she sounds like and why. Mr. Verb has already hinted that you get big variability in situations of koine or new dialect formation. In mid-20th c. recordings of Wisconsin speakers, the accents sound all over the map to me, while contemporary recordings from the same areas scream Wisconsin, even specifically eastern or southeastern or western Wisconsin. That is, the Wisconsin accent we know now is very recent, and Wisconsin's (European) settlement is far older than Alaska's.

I don't know the historical demographics of Wasilla, but if the percentage of newcomers is high enough, it could well be that she grew up among those folks, and ended up with an accent that sounds like a thousand or so miles away.


Brains said...

I didn't notice her accent. I couldn't get passed the constant character assassination of a certain community organizer.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, that was hard to swallow. I mean, 'community organizer' seems to be -- from the way speakers used it last night -- code for 'works with African-Americans' or something, but how do you insult somebody for being willing to dedicate themselves to help workers who've just lost their jobs. (I take it that's what Obama was doing there.) And he was helping steelworkers; her freakin' husband is/was a steelworker.

Of course those attacks were hardly noticeable in all the stream of complex proposals for solving our problems she was laying out, and the detailed command of facts and policy she showed.

Yeah, right.

Andrea said...

I find the question of Palin's accent very interesting. I've lived both in the Pacific Northwest and within 30 miles of Wassila, AK, yet she doesn't sound "normal" to me. Some of the characteristics (e.g. tense/lax vowel merger before coda /l/ and the extreme r-fullness) are ones I would associate with the rural West (not specifically the Northwest). But some aspects of her speech, as you mention, sound very Midwestern to me. I know her father is from northern Idaho (I wonder if the Idaho connection is what's behind what I'm hearing as slight Canadianesque Raising?), but I'd be interested to know where her mother is from. I can also comment that, at least when I lived in that area of AK in the late 80s/early 90s, there were indeed an extremely high number of relatively recent transplants, including especially a lot of military families who had previously been stationed in Hawaii or the South. I'd be interested to see how her pronunciation compares to what's seen in studies of "American Military Base English".

Mr. Verb said...

"Canadianesque Raising" is a brilliant turn of phrase. I wonder how percentage of the population was new when she was young -- 90%?

tinkkytone said...

I had to repost this cause I'm not sure what happen with the grammar :)

This is probably the most unbiased view I've read on her accent. Being from California, I can't place it and I'm not that familiar with "Fargo". However, when I hear her voice I remember a special I saw about "Cheese" on the Food Network.

I have a question for you Mr. Verb. Is there a particular reason that her voice comes through louder than others on TV? I've been wondering if the TV people are turning up the volume, but it almost reminds of me of what happens when I crank up the treble knob in my car.

Not sure if that is accurate, but I've twiced lowered my TV way down, and I could still hear Palin lima charlie.

Mr. Verb said...

Interesting question there, Tinkkytone. I haven't noticed that, actually. Or is it signal compression?

Another thing to pay attention to.

Anonymous said...

It may be a signal compression, but it's happened every single time I've seen her television. Her voice comes through crystal clear, as though there is very little background noise...just the clarity of her voice. I was attributing this to her accent because her tone has a higher pitch than the normal cadence of most TV people.

lol...maybe I'm losing my mind, but everytime she's on I got to turn down the volume down.

Mr. Verb said...

She does have a high voice. We need to collect some data here …

I wonder if she'll be on the national scene long enough to warrant journal articles and such.

Wayne Leman said...

In a comment on Language Log, I suggest as a native (and partially Native) Alaskan that Sarah's accent may reflect exposure to Bush English. That is not a reference to English spoken by the current occupant of the White House, but English as it is spoken by Natives from the Alaskan "Bush" (rural villages). I'd like to hear more of Todd Palin's speech to determine if he speaks a variety of Bush English (since he is part Yupik) which Sarah might have picked up from him.

Sarah's vowel qualities sound similar to Indian English as spoken on an Indian reservation where I worked as linguist for 30 years.

OTOH, Sarah may be a dialectal sponge. She may have been so aware of being in Minnesota while at the RNC that she took on some of the vowel qualities of Minnesotan English. It's not too difficult to mimic. Let's see how she speaks when she goes to the Deep South, Pennsylvania, or the Northeast.

andrea said...

Intriguing suggestion, Wayne. In case anyone is interested, I found the website of the Bethel, AK public radio station. Bethel is the largest city in the region populated by the Yupik people. Of course, we don't know where the announcers are from, but some of the characteristics of the female announcer's speech do (in my admittedly quickly and unscientifically formed opinion) sound quite similar to Sarah Palin's:

Palin's Accent Comes and Goes said...

Gov. Palin's accent comes and goes. Watch the Katie Couric interview of Sept 24. When Gov. Palin knows that her point is weak, she needs an endearing distraction and drops her g's from "ing" at the end of verbs and subs "ya" for "you." Notice that when she has a more prepared or certain answer, the g returns. Not to say that she does this intentionally. I believe it's a people skill which often has worked for her, which started as a child entertaining the adults in her life. It's cute, and at a certain level it has worked for her to increase popularity and deflect criticism or attention when the discussion hardens. Few successful politicians lack such engaging mannerisms. But when the substance is not there, the mannerisms fall flat and are subject to ridicule.