Placing Sarah Palin's accent.

Language and how we use it.
Oct. 1 2008 1:30 PM

What Kind of Accent Does Sarah Palin Have?

Wasillan, actually.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

Since Sarah Palin was selected as the Republican candidate for vice president, many people have made comments about her unusual speech, comparing it to accents heard in the movie Fargo, in the states of Wisconsin and Idaho, and in Canada. Some have even attributed her manner of speaking to her supposed stupidity. But Palin actually has an Alaskan accent, one from the Matnuska and Susitna Valley region, where Palin's hometown, Wasilla, is located.

Alaska is an unusual dialect area. As with most regions of the Western United States, its inhabitants have typically arrived from a variety of places, and comparatively recently. Western dialects are thus usually less sharply defined than many in the East, where there are long-established stable settlements that have given distinctive features to the dialect—as, for example, Scots and Northern Irish did in the Appalachians, or the Puritans from East Anglia in New England, or Germans and Scandinavians in the Upper Midwest.

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Many Alaska residents came from the Pacific Northwest or Western Canada, and features of the dialects of these regions are the most prominent in Alaskan English. Alaskan English even has a certain amount of "Canadian raising," the sound change that makes a Canadian about sound something like a boot. There are also a significant number of immigrants from the Midwest in Alaska, and they have contributed different elements to Alaskan speech. And in parts of Alaska, there is influence from Eskimo and Indian languages, though this is typically found only in people raised in native villages, and this speech is popularly associated with remote regions.

Alaska also has its own distinctive lexicon culled from a variety of languages; it includes sourdough, or "long-time native of Alaska," and cheechako, or "newcomer" (from Chinook Jargon). Alaska also gave us the parka (from Russian, ultimately from Nenets, a Samoyedic language of northern Russia). Overall, because of the mixture of people and the large number of newcomers, Alaskan English is often hard to place, with both Westerners and Midwesterners thinking that it sounds oddly foreign; indeed, some Westerners have said that Palin sounds like a Midwesterner, and Midwesterners that she sounds Western.

Others have wondered whether her accent hails from Idaho, where her parents are from. But dialect features tend to come from one's peers, not one's parents, and Palin spent her childhood in Alaska's Mat-Su Valley, which is where she got her distinctive manner of speaking. The next town over from Wasilla, Palmer, has a large settlement of Minnesotans—who were moved there by a government relief program in the 1930s—and features of the Minnesotan dialect are thus prominent in the Mat-Su Valley area. Hence the Fargo-like elements in Palin's speech, in particular the sound of her "O" vowel. (Despite its name, Fargo took place mostly in Brainerd, Minn.) However, even in the area, many people speak a more general Alaskan English, the sort one would find in nearby Anchorage. Palin's frequent dropping of the final G in -ing words and her pronunciation of terrorist with two syllables instead of three are characteristic of general Alaskan English (and Western English) rather than the specific Mat-Su Valley speech.

Reaction to Palin's speech has been highly varied. Some people dislike it, finding it harsh or grating; others regard it as charming or authentic. These are common responses to a distinctive accent. Depending on the context, such an accent can make a person seem stupid or uneducated or, conversely, honest and folksily trustworthy—often at the same time. Some people exploit this for effect, emphasizing and de-emphasizing dialect features to prompt a particular reaction. Linguists call this code-switching. 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.

Thanks to Joan Hall of the Dictionary of American Regional Englishand Alaska native James Crippen of the University of Hawaii.

Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the president of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of The F-Word.