Sarah Palin Speech Habits Studied By University Of Wisconsin

I was away for part of the weekend, and so missed this story on Saturday.  Our friend Henry Dudek would have loved to read this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  In March 2006 he wrote about the over-all topic in this email to us.

EVERYONE has an accent.  It’s just a question of what it is.  The fact that it might be the most widely used dialect of American Standard English –the usual standard for broadcast media — doesn’t mean that it’s not a particular accent.  Every speaker has his own idiolect, shares a dialect/accent with others, and has certain basic traits in common with all other (American) English speakers.  I remember how my relatives in Detroit always laughed at our “accent” when they came to visit, while we laughed at theirs!  Everyone thinks his own usage is “English” and everyone else’s is an accent.

With that in mind comes the article from over the weekend.

When Sarah Palin burst onto the national political stage, there was a lot of talk about her distinctive way of talkin’, you betcha.

Heck, she moved to Alaska when she was too young to speak and grew up in the small town of Wasilla, but doggone it, why did she talk like someone from the movie “Fargo”?

Three University of Wisconsin linguists tackled the conundrum in a research article to be published in the Journal of English Linguistics next month. The answer lies in something that happened in the 1930s.

During the presidential campaign, almost every aspect of Palin’s life, including how she talked, was dissected by everyone from curious voters to political pundits. Many noted that for someone who grew up in Alaska, she talked a lot like she had been raised in Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota.

The UW researchers said people living in Alaska’s Matanuska and Susitna valleys, where Wasilla is located, are largely descendants of farmers who moved there in the 1930s from the Upper Midwest. More than 200 farm families moved to the Wasilla area in 1935 as part of a government program to start a new farming community.

“Everybody’s ear was basically right, but there’s a little complexity there that you don’t get until you go through and hack through it systematically,” said Joe Salmons, director of UW’s Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. He wrote the paper along with UW linguistics professors Thomas Purnell and Eric Raimy after they parsed the 7,640 words Palin spoke during the 2008 vice presidential debate.

While Palin has the expected Upper Midwestern speech patterns, she also has what Salmons called “screaming hallmarks of western speech.”

For example, Palin pronounces the word “feel” like “fill” and “peel” like “pill.” They found that she dropped the -ing at the end of words nearly 12% of the time, said the words “darn” and “heck” two times each, referred to her grandmother as “gramma” and offered a “shout out” to a third-grade class in Alaska.

That type of informal speech is jarring to listeners attuned to hearing formal political talk and led many to question whether Palin was doing it for effect, Purnell said.

“This is a situation where you really expect someone to be using the most formal grammar,” Salmons said.


2 thoughts on “Sarah Palin Speech Habits Studied By University Of Wisconsin

  1. Amy Moran

    Thanks for invoking H’s memory here, Greg. You may want to also see the recent New Yorker article on voice coach Monach.
    Regards, from one of the Valentines

  2. Ferrell Gummitt

    Geez oh Pete guys. The Associated Press sends 11 reporters to “fact check” Sarah Palin’s book. I am sure that the U of W studying her speech habits is a great use of WI tax payer dollars.

    What next? Food Network sends out Bobby Flay and Giada DeLaurentis to study her food, cooking and eating habits?

    Why does the left fear this lady so much?

    Why all of the obsession on every minutae of her being?

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