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The Real Thing

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary

Oct. 14, 2008

I don't think there's ever been an era when politicians' speech and accents received so much critical scrutiny. During the primaries, a clip of Hillary Clinton's brief foray into Southern intonations made the rounds of the Internet and cable shows under the heading "Kentucky Fried Hillary." Last January, William F. Buckley criticized John Edwards for manipulating audiences with a "carefully maintained Southern accent." Barack Obama has been knocked for occasionally falling into what some people called a "blackcent" that his upbringing didn't entitle him to. And even Michelle Obama was accused of pandering when she said "There ain't no blacks in Iowa."

It isn't just Democrats who come in for this. George W. Bush has been derided for exaggerating a West Texas twang that sounds nothing like the way his brother Jeb talks. And the reactions to Sarah Palin's speech mirror all the intense feelings she's aroused: it's grating, it's charming; it's illiterate, it's folksy; it's contrived, it's genuine.

You could pin some of that on the new media. Time was when candidates could tailor their speech to audiences in South Carolina or New York without having to worry that an audioclip of every y'all or youse would be instantly posted on the Web for the rest of the country to chew over.

But none of this would have any interest for us if accents didn't seem to offer a window on character. Mention someone's accent and you unleash all the jargon of authenticity. Karl Rove charges that "[Hillary] calculates everything, including her accent and laugh." And Obama's linguistic shape-shifting led the African American conservative Shelby Steele to ask, "Who's the real [Obama]? What's his voice?"

If authenticity is a matter of heeding your true inner voice, then it probably isn't surprising that people listen for signs of it in the way you speak. And our idea of an authentic accent reflects our idea of the authentic self. It's the natural speech you sucked up from the surroundings you grew up in, unfiltered and uncorrected. It's how you're supposed to sound when you're talking to yourself.

It's also a delusion. Or at least if your speech is like yourself, it's because both are a work in progress. My own speech covers a lot more territory than it did when I was growing up in a New York suburb. Sometimes it shifts toward what people would hear as East Coast nondescript. And sometimes it gets pretty sidewalks-of-New York, particularly when I'm talking to friends from college days. ("Hey -- you never used to talk like that," my sister once said to me after she overheard me talking on the phone with one old friend.) But it doesn't make sense to ask what part of that is my "authentic" voice. You grow up, you meet new people, you change the way you talk. If you still sound the same way you did when you were fifteen, you haven't been getting out enough.

So what if George W. Bush came relatively late in life to west Texas and its g-dropping ways?[1] It's part of who he is now, and I'd bet it's how he sounds when somebody wakes him up in the middle of the night. And it's hard to imagine that Hillary could have 14 spent years in a Little Rock law office or that Obama could have worked on Chicago's South Side without their picking up some of the local cadences. Shifting among accents isn't a sign of a fragmented self, but only a complicated one. (Though in the age of Youtube, it's probably not a smart move to do it during a national campaign.)  

Of course there are politicians who don't feel the need to tailor their accents to their audience, like John McCain and Joe Biden. Maybe that's a sign of their inner constancy, or maybe it's just because they aren't really trying to create the illusion of a personal relationship with the audience that the others are after.

But authentic voice is a different matter for politicians who have rural or popular roots, like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin. As a part of our moral slang, authentic is laced with condescension. It usually implies quaintness or local color -- it's a word we use for creole cooking, not haute cuisine. And when people talk about authentic accents they're not thinking of the way people speak on the TV news or middle-class suburbs, but of the speech in places like South Philly and Fargo, not to mention Hot Springs, Arkansas and Wasilla. Nobody would ask whether Brian Williams's accent is authentic -- actually a lot of people would say he doesn't have an accent at all. (When I hear someone described as having no accent, I think of those pinkish Crayola crayons we used to have that were labeled "flesh.")

So like Bill Clinton, Palin can signal authenticity simply by refashioning her original accent, rather than acquiring a new one. You can actually hear how this developed if you pull up the Youtube video of Palin as a 24-year-old Anchorage sportscaster fresh from her broadcasting classes in college. She wasn't in control of her accent back then: she scattered the desk with dropped g's: "Purdue was killin' Michigan"; "Look what they're doin' to Chicago."

It's strikingly different from the way she talks now in her public appearances, not just because she's much more poised, but because she's learned how to work it. When she talks about policy, her g's are decorously in place -- she never says "reducin' taxes" or "cuttin' spendin.'"

But the g's disappear when she speaks on behalf of ordinary Americans -- "Americans are cravin' something different" or "People… are hurtin' 'cause the economy is hurtin'." It's of a piece with the you betchas, doggones and the other effusions that are meant to signal spontaneous candor.

Now there are clearly a lot of people who find this engaging, but I can't imagine that anybody really supposes it's artless. What it is is a stone-washed impersonation of a Mat-Su Valley girl. I wouldn't be surprised if Palin and her friends perfected this way back in high school. There's no group that's so unselfconscious that its members don't get a kick out of parodying their own speech: most Brooklynites do a very creditable Brooklyn, and every Valley girl can do a dead-on Valley girl. And with all credit to Tina Fey, she wouldn't be so brilliant at doing Sarah Palin if Sarah Palin weren't so good at doing herself.

1. I say "g-dropping" with a slight wince, because linguists dislike the term. The fact is that phonetically there is no g in these words -- we don't say "huntinG or fishinG" -- and the process really involves the subsitution of one nasal consonant for another. return

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.