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Palin's Accent Examined

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Palin's Accent Examined

Gov. Sarah Palin

Palin's Accent Examined

Palin's Accent Examined

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Ever since she emerged on the national stage, Sarah Palin's accent has prompted many theories. William Labov, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says he's studied Palin's way of speaking and she has a distinctive Alaskan accent.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Well, so much for content. We're listening not just for what the candidates say, but also how they say it. We're not talking style here. We're talking regional accents. First, Sarah Palin's. To the consternation of millions and to the fiendish delight of Tina Fey, it has introduced the nation to what Alaskans sound like. Or has it? Some people say Palin talks more like Frances McDormand playing Police Chief Marge Gunderson in the movie, "Fargo."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "FARGO")

WILLIAM MACY: (As Jerry Lundegaard) Like I told ya, we haven't had any vehicles go missing.

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Marge Gunderson) OK. Are you sure?

SIEGEL: Well, does that sound like this?

SARAH PALIN: Reduce taxes, control spending, reform the oversight and the overseeing agencies and committees to make sure that America's dollars and investments are protected.

SIEGEL: That's Governor Palin. And joining us from Philadelphia is University of Pennsylvania Professor of Linguistics William Labov who is an expert on regional American accents. You've listened to Sarah Palin, is that an Alaskan accent?

WILLIAM LABOV: Yes, she's a (unintelligible) Alaskan. Compared to those - the two speakers from her area in our "Atlas of North American English," she measures up pretty good.

SIEGEL: Some people hear a lot of Minnesota in that speech. Are we wrong? Are there many similarities?

LABOV: This is a northern dialect, a northwestern dialect. O is not pronounced "go" and "row", as it is in the middle and in the south, but it's not the strong "Oh" of "Minnes-Oh-ta." Just because she doesn't say "go" doesn't mean she's saying "Oh."

PALIN: Democrats. When Bureaucracy just gets kind of comfortable, going with the status quo and not...

SIEGEL: Are we hearing dialects that are influenced by Scandinavian speech or German speech? Where does this come from?

LABOV: No, no. This is the normal development of our western and northern United States, the way the words that are spelled with A, short A, are pronounced. So like most of the people in that area, she will say "can," "hands," "candidate" for any word where the letter A precedes M or N.

PALIN: I answered him yes, because I have the confidence in that readiness, and knowing that you can't blink. You have to be wired in a way...

SIEGEL: Are there distinctive things about Sarah Palin's speech that have struck you from listening to her?

LABOV: Well, she's great for reaching out in interviews, and she uses colloquial forms like "gotta go" and "gotta remember" very effectively. And then, she is one of the people who say "Ei-ran," and there are other people on the other side of the fence say "Ee-rahn" or "Ee-ran." So, there's a lot of variation here, and she takes a strong stand on these points of pronunciation.

SIEGEL: Well, I dare say this is entirely impressionistic, but I think that there are thousands, if not millions, of offices in America where somebody is doing the Sarah Palin impression over the past several weeks. It's obviously a compelling accent we've been exposed to. Less compelling, less exotic, to my ear at least, is the accent of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden.

JOE BIDEN: Part of what a leader does to instill confidence is demonstrate that he or she knows what they're talking about and communicates to people, if you listen to me and follow what I'm suggesting, we can fix this.

SIEGEL: He's talkin' and suggestin'.

LABOV: Yes, he's a great user of the in' form. Again, it's a political way of reaching out to people and being casual, and almost all candidates will do it. So they are similar in that respect. The big difference in the point of view of dialect is the one we talked about with the letter O and AW. So, you heard him say talkin'.

SIEGEL: Talkin', yeah.

LABOV: That's the East Coast difference. So he will say, walkin' the walk and Washington with that "Aw" sound, which marks him as being a member of the northeastern conurbation, that strip of people from Providence down to Wilmington, Delaware.

SIEGEL: So, I'm now imagining a Chinese skillet in my mind. The difference between walkin' the walk and walkin' the wok would be one difference between the two people debating tonight.

LABOV: Yep.

SIEGEL: Well, William Labov, thank you very much for talking with us today about it.

LABOV: It's good talking with you.

SIEGEL: It's William Labov, linguist at the University of Pennsylvania and also the editor of the "Atlas of North American English."

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