It’s game day for Sarah Palin. The Republican Vice Presidential candidate has been vigorously preparing for weeks for the big debate with Senator Joe Biden tonight, brushing up on policy and the names of various foreign leaders. But Palin’s biggest accessory tonight may not be her ability to say Ahmadinejad’s name without choking. It might not even be her lipstick. Her best weapon is the one she already has on the tip of her tongue: her accent.
Palin’s particular pronunciation is as defining as John F. Kennedy’s thick Boston brogue and President Bush’s Southern drawl. It’s been lampooned by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live and described as “Fargo-esque” by the Washington Post. It’s been called “awful,” “nauseating,” and “dumb.” So how could it possibly give her an edge in the debate?
According to Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, an Assistant Professor of linguistics at Ohio State University, Palin speaks with what is typically referred to as a “North Central American English” accent, which is spoken in Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Iowa, upper Michigan, and North and South Dakota. A quick look at CNN’s electoral map reveals why that’s important: Swing states like Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan are all currently leaning Obama, with Wisconsin a tossup. Just by virtue of talking at the debate tonight, Palin could appeal voters in those states and put the Midwest back into play.
“Some people enjoy the small town accent,” said Communication senior James D’Angelo, President of Northwestern’s College Republicans, adding that it makes Palin sound “friendly and familiar and just kind of relaxed.”
Campbell-Kibler agreed that a Palin’s accent could influence some voters. “In Fargoand also Prarie Home Companion, there’s a portrayal of people from that region as being very nice or hospitable,” she said.
Before anybody gets insulted that something so trivial as an accent could sway an election, remember that voters often choose candidates they can relate to (see: Obama and black voters, Clinton and women). And Presidential candidates sometimes pick their VPs for the express reason of winning specific states or regions of the U.S. — in the 1960 election JFK picked the Texan Lyndon Johnson to help carry the South, while Richard Nixon chose Henry Cabot Lodge to match Kennedy’s pull in New England.
The only problem is Palin isn’t from the Midwest. She’s from Alaska. So just where did that gosh darn accent come from?
A little Scandinavian, a little Alaskan English
A quick look into Palin’s background doesn’t make the origin of her accent any clearer. She was born in Sandpoint, Idaho but moved as an infant to Wasilla, Alaska, where she grew up. Her college years involved a lot of moving around: She attended school in Hawaii, Idaho and Alaska before graduating. She then moved to Anchorage to work as a sports broadcaster before returning to Wasilla, where she began her political career. Nowhere in her personal history is there any mention of the Midwest.
Some people have suggested that she picked the accent up from her parents. Again, no definitive dice: it appears that her father was born in Los Angeles and her mother is from Washington State. Others point to her college years in Idaho as a linguistic influence. This seems plausible — it’s the only part of the continental U.S. she spent any significant time. But does her accent sound at all Idahoan?
“Honestly, no,” said Megan Crepeau, a Medill junior who hails from Idaho Falls, Idaho. “I think it’d be more Midwestern than Idahoan.”
Most Northwestern students probably couldn’t identify an Alaskan accent any more than they could find South Ossetia on a map. According to the Registrar’s Office, only 20 of Northwestern’s 8,434 undergraduates are from Alaska. But with the fourth-smallest population of all the states, and the entire country of Canada as buffer, it’s pretty safe to say that Alaskan accents remain a mystery to most Americans.
There have been some attempts to solve the puzzle. The Swamp claimed Palin’s accent is the result of German and Scandinavian settlers in Alaska. Slatebuilt on that theory, pointing to a specific settlement of Minnesotans near Wasilla, and adding that her accent also shows signs of something called “Alaskan English.”
“They have a slightly different accent in Wasilla than we do in Anchorage,” agreed Daniel Breen, 19, a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “A little Midwestern, but not as pronounced as Palin’s. People are going to think that that’s what Alaskans speak like, which isn’t true.”
So perhaps Palin’s accent has some upper-Midwestern roots, transplanted and mixed in with some local twang. Or maybe she’s been listening to Garrison Keillor too often (doubtful). The question remains: Will her accent make a difference in the race for the White House?
Less formal, more comfortable
President George Bush’s Southern accent has become one of his defining characteristics, along with his smirk and over-sized ears. During the campaigns 2000 and 2004 he was seen as a down-to-earth guy, the everyman.
“A lot of people don’t like the idea of electing an elistist,” said D’Angelo. “It was very effective for Bush. He was a person that people could sit down and have a beer with.”
Professor Campbell-Kibler said her research indicated that Palin’s use of dropped “g’s” (as in: “workin’”) might make her appear “less formal, more comfortable” to voters. Weinberg senior Will Upton, the Vice President of the Northwestern College Republicans, agreed that Palin’s accent made her more accessible as a politician.
“Her word choice and her more folksy attitude is much more appealing towards voters than Obama or McCain or Biden, who speak this Washington dialect,” he said. “I think she’s a departure from that and I think people see that as being kind of a good thing.”
There’s been talk that the John McCain campaign has been limiting Palin’s exposure, keeping the press at bay and carefully orchestrating her public appearances. Both D’Angelo and Upton agreed that during tonight’s debate Palin should try to be as genuine as possible and not conform to pressure from the McCain campaign.
“If she plays down the accent to make herself sound more intelligent that could be really detrimental to her,” said Upton. “People will see her as betraying her background and trying to be a politician.”
But Campbell-Kibler cautioned against putting too much stock in Palin’s pronunciation, explaining that her research showed people to be “heavily influenced by the whole package.” Accent impacted perception, but content mattered too.
Translation: Palin’s accent might have an effect, but it won’t win the election. She’ll need to back it up tonight with cohesive answers and some pit-bull aggression if she wants to come out on top.