TERRY GROSS, host:
One of the things Sarah Palin has become famous for is her often folksy way of speaking. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been listening to Palin, as well as to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush and has been wondering about the connection between accents and authenticity.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG (Linguist): I don't think there's ever been an era when politicians' speech and accents got so much critical scrutiny. During the primaries, a clip of Hillary Clinton's brief foray into Southern intonations made the rounds of the Internet and cable shows under the heading Kentucky Fried Hillary. Last January, William F. Buckley criticized John Edwards for manipulating audiences with a carefully maintained Southern accent. And Barack Obama has been knocked for occasionally falling into what some people called a black-ccent that his upbringing didn't entitle him to.
It isn't just Democrats who come in for this. George W. Bush has been derided for exaggerating a west Texas twang that sounds nothing like the way his brother Jeb talks. And the reactions to Sarah Palin's speech mirror all the intense feelings she's aroused. It's grating. It's charming. It's illiterate. It's folksy. It's contrived. It's genuine.
You could blame the new media for some of that. Time was when candidates could tailor their speech to audiences in South Carolina or New York without having to worry that an audio clip of every y'all or youse would be instantly posted on the web for the rest of the country to chew over.
But none of this would interest us if accents didn't seem to offer a window on character. Mention somebody's accent, and you unleash all the jargon of authenticity. Karl Rove charges that Hillary calculates everything, including her accent and laugh. And Obama's linguistic shapeshifting led the African-American conservative Shelby Steele to ask, who's the real Obama? What's his voice?
If authenticity is a matter of heeding your true inner voice, then it isn't surprising that people listen for signs of it in the way you speak. And our idea of an authentic accent reflects our idea of the authentic self. It's the natural speech you drew from your surroundings when you were growing up, unfiltered and uncorrected. It's how you sound when you're talking to yourself. It's also a delusion, or at least if speech is like the self, it's because both of them are a work in progress.
My own speech covers a lot more territory than it did when I was growing up in a New York suburb. Sometimes, it shifts toward what people would hear as nondescript eastern. And sometimes, it gets pretty sidewalks of New York, particularly when I'm talking to friends from college days. But it doesn't make sense to ask what part of that is my authentic voice. You grow up, you meet new people, you start to talk differently. If you still sound the same way you did when you were 15, you haven't been getting out enough.
So, what if George Bush came relatively late in life to west Texas and its g-dropping ways? It's part of who he is now, and I bet it's how he sounds when somebody wakes him up in the middle of the night. It's hard to imagine that Hillary could have spent 14 years in a Little Rock law office or that Obama could have worked on Chicago's south side without picking up some of the local cadences. Shifting among accents isn't a sign of fragmented self but only a complicated one, though, in the age of YouTube, it's probably not a smart tactical move if you're running for national office.
Of course, there are politicians who don't feel the need to tailor their accents to their audiences, like John McCain and Joe Biden. Maybe that's a sign of their inner constancy, or maybe it's just because they aren't trying to create the illusion of a personal relationship with the audience that the others are after. But this all plays out very differently for politicians who have rural or popular roots, like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin.
As a part of our moral slang, authenticity implies quaintness or local color. It's a word we use for Creole cooking, not haute cuisine. And when people talk about authentic accents, they're not thinking of the middle class suburbs but the places like South Philly, Fargo, or Hot Springs, Arkansas, not to mention Wasilla. So, like Bill Clinton, Palin can signal authenticity by refashioning her original accent rather than by acquiring a new one. You can see how this developed if you pull up the YouTube video of her as a 24-year old Anchorage sportscaster fresh out of college. She wasn't in control of her accent back then. She scattered the desk with drop g's. Purdue was killin' Michigan. They're pullin' out of reach.
It's strikingly different from the way she talks now in her public appearances. Not just because she's much more poised, but because she's learned how to work it for effect. When she talks about policy, her g's are decorously in place. She never says reducin' taxes or cuttin' spendin'. But the g's disappear when she speaks on behalf of ordinary Americans. Americans are cravin' something different or people, are hurtin' because the economy is hurtin'. It's of a piece with the you betcha's, the doggones, and the other effusions of spontaneous candor.
Now, a lot of people find this engaging, but I don't think anybody really supposes it's artless. It's a skillfully stone-washed self impersonation. I can actually picture her and her friends playing at this way back in high school. The fact is that no group is so unselfconscious that they don't get a kick out of parodying their own speech. Brooklynites do a creditable Brooklyn and every Valley Girl can do an uncanny Valley Girl. And with all credit to Tina Fey, she wouldn't be so brilliant at doing Sarah Palin if Sarah Palin weren't so good at doing herself.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the school of information at the University of California at Berkeley. You can download podcast of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.