Does Hillary Clinton really speak with two accents?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 2 2007 10:11 AM

Drawl on Demand

Does Hillary Clinton really speak with two accents?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., declared herself "multilingual" on Friday, saying that her on-again, off-again Southern twang will be a plus for her candidacy. Clinton's Democratic adversaries Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John Edwards have also faced allegations of linguistic pandering to potential voters. (Click to hear Clinton's accent and Obama's.) Does anyone naturally speak with more than one accent?

Yes, lots of people do. We're all guilty of changing the way we speak in subtle ways, depending on whom we're talking to. Linguists call this "code shifting"—you don't want to talk to your boss the same way you talk to your old college roommates. We often code shift subconsciously, by picking up other people's speech patterns (as anyone who has ever studied abroad probably knows). Politicians and actors, on the other hand, sometimes hire vocal coaches to help them with their speech. But it isn't too difficult to adopt a bit of a twang. It's easier to match an accent if you've heard quite a bit of it—as Clinton has from the mouth of her Arkansas-born husband. (American politicians aren't the only leaders who try to sound more down-home: Last year, England's Queen Elizabeth was accused of folksying up her speech.)

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

Our accents develop as we acquire language and speech skills in early childhood—before the age of 6, for most people. By the early teen years, our accents are pretty firmly entrenched, matching the cues provided by those around us. * A conscious attempt to change your natural accent can take some time. It depends on how good a mimic you are, whether you want to be able to stay "in accent" all the time or just once in a while, and other factors. Those who succeed won't have made a permanent shift. A Southerner who moves to New York and wants to drop the twang will often pick it up again when he visits home (or has a few drinks).

A very small number of people seem to change their accent as a result of brain damage. As of 2003, doctors have reported fewer than 20 cases of foreign accent syndrome, which leaves sufferers with brand-new speech patterns. For example, an Indiana woman suffered a stroke in 1999 and subsequently picked up a mixture of West Country and cockney British accents. (Listen to someone suffering from FAS here.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Dennis Baron of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Paul Meier of the University of Kansas, Wanda Webb of Vanderbilt University, and Steven Weinberger of George Mason University. *

Correction, May 1, 2007: This article originally stated that a study showed cows have "regional accents." That "study" was a now-debunked PR hoax. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, May 2, 2007: This article originally spelled Steven Weinberger's first name incorrectly. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.