Friday, October 3, 2008

It's not what you said, it's the way that you said it

A question for people who know more about the US than I do, ie pretty much everyone on the planet. (Looking at you, T.)

Someone over at Larvatus Prodeo has just commented that he will not be watching the Palin/Biden debate because 'her accent makes Baby Jesus cry'. Now while this seemed partly a reference to Palin's regrettable religious convictions, he also obviously really meant it, and it recalled several other attack-doggy things I've heard said about Palin's accent.

This puzzles me a bit because to me she just sounds more or less generically American, like the cowboys of my TV childhood. (Perhaps that's exactly what the problem is.) Perhaps those Australians I've heard mocking her voice have been watching too much West Wing and automatically associate the way they all talk with the good guys, to which I can only reply that at least one can hear what Sarah Palin is actually saying.

Also a bit puzzlingly, to me, I've heard Palin's referred to as 'midwestern' in a way clearly intended as a nasty insult. I've read and seen enough to know that Americans mock and deride each other's regional accents very much in the way that Australians do only much more so and with, it has to be said, a nastier edge, and that (less like the way Australians do it) there seems to be a definite class-based (though it's disguised as something other than class) pecking order attached to this. The midwest and the deep south in particular seem to come in for a lot of bashing on the site of this accent/class/mysterious-third-category nexus, but then places as different as the Bronx and Minnesota seem get a lot of stick as well.

I'm guessing that in the case of the South and the Midwest this is partly just ideological animus rather than outright class hatred, much in the way that a bohemian denizen of deepest Fitzroy might mock the vowels of a well-heeled croc-huntin' Nationals-votin' Far North Queenslander, but in the US it seems to go deeper than that.

So here's my question: is Sarah Palin's accent really 'midwest', and if so is the term 'midwest' then not really a geographic indicator at all? (Alaska being, like, close enough to see Russia from one's house.) And does that classification, or something else, really identify her as a rube, and is that what this stuff about her accent is all about? It doesn't sound like that to me. It's a bit twangy, but as far as twang goes I would a million times rather listen to her than to a certain kind of New Yorker. Except, of course, for what she actually says.

I would welcome any enlightenment that anyone can provide.


Barry Leiba said...

I would categorize her accent as very similar to western Canadian — which stands to reason, geographically. There are aspects of that accent that make it similar to those from the northern plains states, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana. Since she's originally from Idaho, that all makes sense too.

The most notable things in her accent are the way she says the "i" in "Biden" and the open "o" in "no". Some of her "a"s are also distinctive ("Afghanistan"). But if you listen carefully to how she says something like, "No, Senator Biden," you'll have it.

I, too, find her accent to be monstrously annoying. But it's not just her accent; it's also her tone of voice, which sounds whiny, very much like people from Chicago... which is where I think the "Midwest" connection comes from. (Also, some would consider Minnesota to be part of the Midwest.)

Finally, every time I hear "maverick", "hockey mom", or "eye-raq", I want to run screaming down the street. I won't bother mentioning "noo-kya-lar".

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, and no, her accent isn't "rube"-ish. What seems that way to me is her penchant for saying things like "doggone" and "you betcha".

Anonymous said...

Mid-debate, let me just say, Nucular (BZZT!). (I like Barry's spelling there too - he popped up after I typed that so I won't attempt to replicate). My resident American identifies her accent as 'Alaskan', but yes i'd say she has overtones of the midwest, and the whiny, and yes, I would say it is a class thing, or a class-like thing, though very very complicated (southern accents may get looked down on, but that Texas or Arkansas twang won't keep you out of the White House, quite the contrary - while those North East New England Accents, which would be amongst the Upper class (but so might Californian/West coast?) might be a drawback - I'm not sure that Boston accent was a bonus for the Kennedys for instance - indeed Boston is another accent that gets made fun of all over the rest of the US - oddly it has similarities with the Australian accent, also hysterical, because Bostonians have trouble pronouncing their Rs properly.
So her whiny midwest accent might be one of the pluses for some of her supporters, though the old right seem to be dropping away.
Plus when I left the room she was whipping Biden's ass.
However you are talking to someone who had trouble getting a library card in massachusetts because the librarian was laughing so hard at the way I spelt my name
as in
i for apple
Avoiding a deadline here, as usual

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thanks Barry, that's really enlightening and helpful. The Canada connection makes sense -- I like the relative softness of the Canadian accent so that may be why Palin's doesn't bother me so much.

Re Minnesota and the Midwest, that's the sort of thing I meant when I said I basically knew zip about these distinctions -- my guess would have been that Minnesota was a bit too north to be west, if you see what I mean, and it does have its distinctive Swedish-origins singsongy Fargo thing going on.

I did wonder if Palin might originally be from somewhere else, but she was Sarah Barracuda in high school in Wasilla IIRC (or have I been misinformed? Serves me right for believing everything I see online) so she must have been pretty young when she left.

The vocabulary and the mispronunciations are a different issue, I think. But I've been really struck by what seems to me the general horror among Americans at her actual accent. We have our Australian equivalent (in more ways than one), a woman called Pauline Hanson, the extreme reaction to whose voice may well have been a puzzle to non-Australians for the same kinds of reasons.

Your vowel analysis is interesting except that I don't know what you would regard as 'correct'. I see that you yourself are a New Yorker; is that regarded in the US as the norm from which everything else is a deviation? Here in Australia, Sydney and Melbourne slug it out for that privilege, which I think is probably quite healthy, although everyone knows Sydney is the centre of Australia really.

*ducks for cover*

Pavlov's Cat said...

Ah T, excellent, I was hoping you'd procrastinate for a bit longer. The debate seems to be a bit up and down. Palin seems to me to be an excellent example of just how very far unassailable self-belief will take a person. But Biden is much better than I was expecting him to be -- I think the Dems chose well. I do however feel deprived of the Clinton v Palin VP debate that could so easily have been taking place today. Picture the scene.

I know exactly what you mean about Boston/Australian. Get one of each to say 'car park' and you'd never, ever know the difference.

On 'nucular' and other solecisms and/or buzzwords, I hope nobody in Australia is playing a drinking game or they'll be paralytic before lunch.

Fyodor said...

"Here in Australia, Sydney and Melbourne slug it out for that privilege, which I think is probably quite healthy, although everyone knows Sydney is the centre of Australia really."

The only people who think Melbourne slugs it out with Sydney live in Melbourne or, sometimes, its AFL colonies in the lesser states.


I think Barry nailed it here. One of the best ways to pick up on accent is to watch its parody, which usually requires exaggeration. Tina Fey's truly exceptional takeoff on SNL was bang on, and she sounded Canuck/Minnesotan to me, particularly the way vowels are either flattened right out or amplified. Ask a Canadian to pronoune "outback" and you'll get somthing like oot-BAHK.

The Bostonian/Australian thing I've always attributed to the prevalence of the Irish and the flat "a" - Irish doesn't have a vowel corresponding to the "ah" sound in the Received English pronounciation of "park". It's either "a" as in "flat" or "á" (a with fada) as in "law".

Anonymous said...

There is just something so wrong in any leader/potential leader of the free world/possessor of nuclear weapons not being able to pronounce the word before they hit the mythical red button...
(yes, I know, pronunciation should be the least of my worries in such an eventuality, but sadly, it won't be).
note that Palin is a hockey mom (however pronounced) because she is too far north to be a soccer mom (ie we're talking ice hockey here - if it were the other kind it would be called field hockey, though i guess no one says 'field hockey mom' either). Resident American is threatening to toss a coin, and may only be half joking, so I'd best get off the computer and on his case (oh and back to work...)

Pavlov's Cat said...

'The only people who think Melbourne slugs it out with Sydney live in Melbourne or, sometimes, its AFL colonies in the lesser states.


Well may we say '*ducks*", ducks. You are so for the high jump.

Actually you're also wrong in at least one respect. Everyone except Melburnians knows that Sydney rules. I agree, however, that Tina Fey was uncanny. Fey, even.

T, agreed about 'nucular' and the button; actually it seems the likelihood of the button being pressed increases in inverse proprtion to the presser's ability to pronounce the word correctly.

I also think it's interesting that everyone on both sides seems in furious if unstated agreement that McCain is not long for this world. We are all behaving as though Palin were the presidential candidate. I, for example, am about go and buy a lot of Veuve Clicquot, drive south for an hour or two, drink all the champers on a nice rural South Australian beach I know, with leafy sea dragons under the jetty. Off which (the jetty not the dragons) I will then jump. Or, more likely, fall.

TimT said...

I like her accent, but then that's coming from a distant (ie, Australian) perspective, and it's coming from someone who likes almost any accent (albeit I get peculiar twitches when I heard New Zealanders talk). And my interest in American accents is of the sort that I can recognise many of the different regional US accents, but not necessarily name them and categorise them according to region/class, and this recognition factor mostly coming from movies and television - I myself would have probably pegged Palins' accent as northern US, though that would have been about it.

When I was holidying in the States they used to keep stopping me and crying, 'OH MY GOD! YOU'RE ENGLISH!' Mutual ignorance ensures international felicity, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

As someone who ostensibly lives in Melbourne (well, within 100k) I'm too dignified to comment on that part of the discussion.
You have a month and 2 days before its time to fall off the end of the pier, so get extra champagne (plus that whizzy thing in switzerland isn't working for another 6 months, so your lifespan may have further possibilities). It is even raining here to make up for September. When it didn't hardly at all. So apart from the fact that I keep reading your blog instead of WORKING there is a lot to live for (until the champagne runs out).
Has anyone checked the actuarial tables. McCain has a fair chance of making another 4 years, doesn't he? Of course we thought my father in law would make 93.
Which reminds me - for no reason, of the accents on West Wing - talking through your teeth - a Washington thing? perhaps even acquired?
Still raining. and for you too by the look of it

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yep, drippy here.

I have done almost no work today either, if that makes you feel any better.

You would adore the Leafy Sea Dragon, if you are not already familiar with it which you probably are, in fact you would adore it so much I am going to put up a whole post about it. I also have plans for another post looking at Sarah Palin's combined east/west horoscopes. She is an Aquarius Dragon: run for your life.

Penthe said...

Ahem. Everyone knows that NSW should be towed out to sea so that the Victorians and the Queenslanders can visit each other conveniently.

Do people from Sydney really sound different to people from Melbourne?

Anonymous said...

I remember reading an analysis ages ago of George W's accent -- I think the commentator said what you can hear is a well-educated (north-east?) accent that had been carefully and deliberately overworked with more folksy Texan overtones? I'd be interested in your thoughts on this, Barry.
Coy Lurker

Barry Leiba said...

«so she must have been pretty young when she left.»

Yes, I just checked Wikipedia (with the usual grain of salt, though true misinformation about something this current wouldn't last long there), and it says that her family moved from Idaho to Alaska when she was an infant. So never mind that (except that maybe her parents' accent had an effect).

«I see that you yourself are a New Yorker; is that regarded in the US as the norm from which everything else is a deviation?»

Oh, heavens, no! My own accent is what we'd think of as "neutral", but I don't sound like a Noo Yawkah. The real NY accent is far from being considered a standard in the U.S., and actually bugs me too. I'm trying to think of a good TV or movie example to give you, but nothing comes instantly to mind. None of the main characters on "Seinfeld" have it, despite that show's being set here. If you've seen George's father (played by Jerry Stiller), that would do it. If you've heard Archie Bunker, from "All in the Family", that's one too.

Ohio is usually considered neutral, and the standard to which newscasters have generally aspired. Charles Gibson (who hosted some of the debates in 2004, and who is now the host of ABC News is neutral. Last night's host, Gwen Ifill is pretty neutral. Jim Lehrer, who hosted last week's presidential debate is not. It seems less important these days than it used to be for a news reader to have a neutral accent.

"Coy Lurker" says...
«I remember reading an analysis ages ago of George W's accent -- I think the commentator said what you can hear is a well-educated (north-east?) accent that had been carefully and deliberately overworked with more folksy Texan overtones? I'd be interested in your thoughts on this, Barry.»

Sure, I'll give my thoughts, though they're not authoritative:
I can't say about the root of his accent from its sound, but he was born and educated in Connecticut, so, yes, that'd be northeast U.S. What I can say is that it's definitely cultivated to try to sound like a folksy Texan, though it falls quite wide of the mark, and I don't think any Texan would say he sounds Texan. He's adopted some of the bits and exaggerated them to the point of caricature. "Ahm own" for "I'm going to", for example.

I think it makes him sound even more like a moron than his words already do. Less directly, it supports Molly Ivins's characterization of him as "All hat and no cattle." He's an outsider trying to fit in. It'd be like my showing up in Sydney and trying to sound like Paul Hogan.

tigtog said...

I note that one of the debate drinking games going around had this as a hit:

"Refill your glass whenever Palin says 'Well, hey,' 'You know,' or 'You betcha' in an inexplicable Minnesota (or is it Wisconsin?) accent. Refill again every time she leaves the 'g' off the end of words (changin', makin', goin', etc)."

So I get the feeling that some people just think her accent is wrong for Alaska, as well as the overall grating nasal quality which irks me.

Perhaps it is the combo of the Iowan parents and the Alaskan highschool which makes her sound "wrong" to some.

skepticlawyer said...

The Canadians here think she sounds Canadian, and are somewhat miffed to discover that USAnians (well, certain middle-class liberal USAnians) hate their accent almost to South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut proportions (if you've not seen it, there is an amusing scene where the Canadian accent is mocked).

I noticed her speech to the RNC was carefully crafted so that at no point did she say 'out' or combinations thereof; dig around on YouTube and you'll find her uttering a notably Canadian 'out' in earlier speeches as Alaska Governor.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Barry. Interesting... I've spent a fair bit of time travelling around America where I love the range of accents. Dubya's accent has always sounded odd to me (and my bullshit detector). I did love "all hat and no cattle"! Coy Lurker

M-H said...

timt, why the twitches with the kiwi accent? Is it the flatness of the vowels? - which can sound kind of 'dumb', I guess. I'm interested, because after ten years in Aus I've noticed how often Kiwis tend to the laconic (the interview with Sam Neil in this morning's Sun-Herald is a good example, I think), and I find that many Aussies think they are a few shillings short of a pound because of that. Never underestimate the slow, flat talker, I say. The Conchord blokes have pleeyed thus to the hult, and good on them.

Nabakov said...

It's her accent per se (which yes as others have pointed out is deep North American) but the delivery - like a timeshare holiday house salesperson rattling out "key selling points" within seconds of having met the target.

My favourite US accent is deep Southern ("ya'll just sorta let each syllable kinda lean up on the next one") and part of its charm is its lack of urgency and willingness to suggest we're just gonna talk this through a little mite before we start jumpin' to any hasty conclusions y'hear. And maybe have sum good times along the way.

Exhibit A: Elvis, Clinton and Talluah Bankhead.

A topical reference here is 'Cool Hand Luke".

"What we have here is a failure to communicate" is a brilliant line for reasons well beyond Strother Martin's delivery. It's a peculiarly and uniquely deep Southern way of phrasing the exasperation of unspoken codes of the system's etiquette breaking down. Which was the whole point of Donn Pearce's original novel (It's bloody great by the way). And he should know having done time on chain gangs for being a safecracker.

Or to put whatever point I think making more clearly, the faster a pollie talks, the less confident they are about how their message is going over.

Look at the surveys and polls after Palin-Biden. Sarah's machine gun 'close the deal' delivery and flurry of folksy winks and verbal tics had no effect on anyone but her supporters. Both registered voters and uncommitted pollees gave it to Biden's stolidly paced performance by two digit margins.

It's Palin's delivery and not accent that irretrievably puts her in Jerry Springer world. And that's the last thing uncommitted voters want in what like the US is now.

Nabakov said...

Insert "not" after the very first word I wrote above.


Jonathan Shaw said...

A note on "nucular": in Geoffrey Nunberg's Going Nucular, he argues that this pronunciation is a signifier in the US that the person using it is part of the military ruling elite. A test of whether it is a simple mispronunciation or such a signifier is to hear what the speaker says when referring to a nucul/lear family.