Palin's Alaska Accent – Something New at the Debate

Hard as it may be for political junkies to believe, Thursday's debate will be the first time many Americans will actually hear Sarah Palin speak–and they're in for something distinctly different. It's not just her habit of referencing moose hunting or pit bull cosmetology that distinguishes the governor. It’s that accent.

Not since John F. Kennedy’s Boston brogue took the stage at the 1960 presidential debates has a national politician's tongue stood out in such a way.

Many Americans got their first gander at (and earful from) the guv when she delivered her remarks at the Republican National Convention, and there's been much said since on how Palin, who was born in Idaho and whisked away to Alaska in her infancy, somehow developed a voice well suited for a character on the Prairie Home Companion.

“It's very Fargo,” said former McCain campaign strategist Mark McKinnon, “ton of personality.”

Comedian Tina Fey cemented the Palin-Fargo perception with the widely-lauded debut of her new recurring impersonation of the Alaska governor on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live.

Before a recent succession of clumsy television interviews that have raised questions about her readiness for the job, McCain supporters were gaga over Palin’s nonpareil pitch, which they saw as one key to her outside-the-Beltway appeal.

“We really haven’t heard this kind of accent before,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “This is an original voice that doesn't sound like Washington, doesn't sound like an insider, doesn't sound at all like what we have.”

“I think it sounds outsider.”

Kevin Madden, former communications director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, asks, “Could you picture Sarah Palin saying, 'Mr. Chairman, I’d like to reclaim my time?’”

“No, me neither," he answered. "And that is a very, very good thing.”

Rosina Lippi-Green, author of “English with an Accent,” said that Palin’s voice is particularly womanish for that of a female politician, considering that many women in politics have been taught to speak in a homogenized timber, a la Hillary Clinton, so as to better compete in what’s still a male-dominated field.

Palin, said Lippi-Green, makes people’s ears prick up. “‘Oh,’ they think, 'she sounds like us, she sounds like me, she understands me.’”

“Women who aren’t even interested in her will sit up and pay attention," Lippi-Green added, "because we aren't used to hearing a woman's speech marked in that context.”

Of course, one person’s charming is another’s annoying.

Former Democratic strategist Dennis Johnson, a political consultant and professor at The George Washington University who went to school in Minnesota, said he found Palin’s voice "a little grating."

Anna Bosch, a linguistics professor at the University of Kentucky, added that "You don’t hear the rounded mellifluous tones of a Katherine Hepburn. Palin’s voice quality is a little bit—I hate to say—abrasive. It is kind of shrill."

While its appeal may be a matter of taste, its newness is unquestioned.

For decades, political genuineness has been embodied by the southern drawl, and three of the last four presidents wielded a twang.

“The South became the outsider’s America,” Castellanos said. “As the political center moved south from the northern, urban, eastern elites, our politics sounded southern. Now the center of American political life is moving west, and we're beginning to hear how that sounds.”

Linguists say that Palin’s voice is actually a mishmash of western dialects, as opposed to being purely upper-Midwestern.

“As you cross the Mississippi,” said University of California Berkeley sociolinguist Robin Lakoff, “the dialect differentiation becomes much less sharp, because there is really much less going on dialect-wise.”

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