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Palin spoken: An atypical accent can spell success

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

So what's with that accent, anyway?

By now, even those of us who aren't Tina Fey can do a pretty good rendition: Linger at the vowels, push the R's, drop the G's. “Ya” instead of “you,” “dee” instead of “day,” “taakin'” instead of “talking.”

In fact, to most Americans in the Lower 48, Sarah Palin's distinctive speech patterns weren't entirely foreign even before John McCain reached up to Alaska and pulled her into history. We've heard that snowy dialect before, generally at quirkier edges of pop culture, places like the film “Fargo” and the TV series “Northern Exposure” and the old Second City Television skit “Great White North” (“Take off, ya hoser!”).

What we haven't heard is that ice-shelf accent being used on the national political stage.

“We don't really have that many public figures who grew up in rural Alaska,” understates John Baugh, a Washington University professor of psychology and linguistics.

Of course, many presidents and other major figures have had regional speech patterns recognizable enough to prompt parody. America's sheer geographic size and its variety of accents practically guarantee it.

But it was half a century ago — when John F. Kennedy's clipped, nasally Bostonian syllables were broadcast in the first televised debates — that we last considered electing to national office someone who so completely doesn't talk like most of us.

Palin's dialect is generally attributed to the long-voweled languages of Scandinavian immigrants — from Norway or Sweden — who settled in Canada and the far northern United States generations ago.

Add to that the logistical isolation of Alaska — which tends to preserve regional dialects — and you've got an accent as geographically predictable as those from the deep South or New England.

“It can be characterized as ‘Upper Midwest,'” said David K. Barnhart, a lexicographer based in New York state. “She tends to relax her speech at the ends of words. … It's what you'd expect from anybody from that region.”

Another key characteristic is that she “rotates” her vowels. That's a term linguists use to address of issue of “where the vowels are made in the mouth,” said Tom Purnell, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

When Chicagoans do it, for example, Purnell said, “hockey” sounds like “hackey,” because the “o” is produced from farther back in the throat. “If you listen to (Palin), you get a lot of this (vowel) movement that linguists listen to … (to chart) a difference across regions.”

That's a factor that could cut both ways for Palin, as she embarks on her first debate Thursday.

On one hand, her accent is reminder of the narrative that the McCain campaign wants to build around her, as a Washington outsider with a modern-frontier background. Just that identifiable difference in speech can help a candidate stand out.

“If you look at the roles that accents have played — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton from the South, and whatever's going on with (President George W.) Bush's accent — atypical (accents) often get voted in,” said Purnell.