MADISON, Wis. — When Sarah Palin burst onto the national political stage there was a lot of talk about her distinctive way of talkin', you betcha.
Heck, she moved to Alaska when she was too young to speak and grew up in the small town of Wasilla, but doggone it, why did she talk like someone from the movie "Fargo"?
Three University of Wisconsin-Madison linguists tackled the conundrum in a research article to be published in the Journal of English Linguistics next month. The answer lies in something that happened in the 1930s.
During the presidential campaign, almost every aspect of Palin's life, including how she talked, was dissected by everyone from curious voters to political pundits. Many noted that for someone who grew up in Alaska, she talked a lot like she had been raised in Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota.
The UW researchers said people living in Alaska's Matanuska and Susitna valleys, where Wasilla is located, are largely descendants of farmers who moved there in the 1930s from the Upper Midwest. More than 200 farm families moved to the Wasilla area in 1935 as part of a government program to start a new farming community.
"Everybody's ear was basically right, but there's a little complexity there that you don't get until you go through and hack through it systematically," said Joe Salmons, director of UW's Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. He wrote the paper along with UW linguistics professors Thomas Purnell and Eric Raimy after they parsed the 7,640 words Palin spoke during the 2008 vice presidential debate.
While Palin has the expected Upper Midwestern speech patterns, she also has what Salmons called "screaming hallmarks of western speech."
For example, Palin pronounces the word "feel" like "fill" and "peel" like "pill." Those inflections were not picked up on by the media or those who lampooned Palin, including Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live," Salmons said.
"It wasn't part of the stereotype," he said.
They found that she dropped the -ing at the end of words nearly 12 percent of the time, said the words "darn" and heck" two times each, referred to her grandmother as "gramma" and offered a "shout out" to a third-grade class in Alaska.
That type of informal speech is jarring to listeners attuned to hearing formal political talk and led many to question whether Palin was doing it for effect, Purnell said.
"This is a situation where you really expect someone to be using the most formal grammar," Salmons said.
No matter how natural it may sound, some of what Palin says is probably cultivated to appeal to a certain demographic, said Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
David Bowie, an English professor specializing in linguistics at the same university, said Palin didn't use so many informalities before she ran for national office.
"She doesn't sound like that when she's speaking to Alaskans," Bowie said.