Last week, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton made a relatively routine campaign stop in Columbia, South Carolina. The speech was supposed to focus on policy issues such as gender pay equity, but it caught attention for something else entirely: Clinton’s sudden use of her long–derided and supposedly uncharacteristic Southern accent.
Video of the speech is below:
Naturally, as soon as a New York Times reporter noted Hillary’s dialectal shift, Fox News wasted little time firing up the snark machine, with one writer calling it “fake” and saying “it’s downright disrespectful and a bit condescending.” Fox & Friends ran a segment with the chyron “Once again, Clinton fakes southern accent,” where co-host Brian Kilmeade (born in Long Island) chided “If I’m Southern, I would be a little insulted if somebody I knew from the Northeast is putting on a bad Southern accent.” And in addition to a deluge of anti-Clinton vitriol on Twitter, Peggy Noonan (born in Brooklyn) of the Wall Street Journal called her cadence a “strange thing,” and Matt Lewis (raised in Maryland) of the Daily Caller declared “one cannot just up and change accents at the age of 15 or 40 or (in Clinton’s case) 67.”
Even Jon Stewart piled on, jabbing at the former New York Senator’s twang on The Daily Show by quipping “Listen up Secretary Clinton, I’ll do the Lindsey Graham impressions around here.”
The consensus, it seemed, was that Clinton, born in Illinois and schooled in New England, couldn’t possibly have an “authentic” Southern accent, and that the sudden preponderance of dropped consonants must be an example of shameless political pandering.
Clinton is hardly the first political figure to be accused of impersonating a dialect — former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) have both been chastised for ostensibly taking on a lilt while campaigning. Also, Southerners have good reason to be protective of their accents: people outside the region have a bad habit of making the South the butt of jokes for borderline bigoted reasons.
Yet it still seems odd that so many people were quick to criticize Clinton, who — despite her Yankee upbringing and education — has been married to a famously accented Arkansan (who went to college in Washington, D.C. and Oxford, England, by the way) for 40 years and lived in The Natural State from 1974 to 1992. Down-home defensiveness aside, the question remains: is it really that unreasonable to assume that Secretary Clinton, a former First Lady of Arkansas, could’ve picked up a bit of a Southern drawl that bubbles up on occasion?
As a South Carolinian born of two deeply Southern parents, this ThinkProgress reporter — whose accent fluctuates wildly depending on where I am — developed a special interest in this question. As such, I consulted with Robin Dodsworth, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University who teaches linguistics and is a published expert on several aspects of the American Southern dialect. Among other things, she challenged the dichotomy of whether or not Clinton or other politicians “fake” their accents, pointing instead to the very human tendency to accommodate to different audiences.*
So what exactly is an “accent?”
When talking about an accent, what people mean by that is a lot of different things. To a linguist, it would be mostly the way you pronounce the sounds of your language. So if you’re from the Southeast, older than a certain age, and from a certain city, you might have what is called the “Southern vowel shift.”
But there is a distinctive Southern accent?
If you’re talking about the Southern accent meaning the way people growing up in the South talk … Yeah, absolutely there are ways that happens and ways that doesn’t happen.
But there are variables … So, someone growing up in Alabama is not going to sound exactly like someone in North Carolina, but they are going to share features that don’t occur outside the South. So it’s not as though sounding Southern is completely up for debate. It’s definitely a real thing.
So can an accent change from place to place?
Yes, but there are some big constraints on that. It’s easiest for an accent to change when you’re young. If you’re old, certain parts of your accent won’t change that much, but [that fluctuates] from person to person.
So say you get somebody who grew up in the South, and then didn’t move somewhere else until they’re 30. Can they change? Sure, in some ways. But are they ever going to change totally? No, they’ll probably retain parts of their Southern accent. They might think they’ve changed, but they are probably holding onto some less salient elements.
Now, certainly some people will do what we call “accommodation,” that is to say, talk like those people [around them] in an effort to get along … But if they move as adults, it’s not as if they’re going to have completely different dialects that they master. What happens is they acquire one dialect fully, and then if they move as an adult, they might have some aspects of that [second] accent… or suppress parts of their other accent.
Regardless, there are some things we can consciously control, and there are some things we don’t realize that we’re doing.
What happens if someone [like Hillary Clinton] grows up in different places?
People who grow up in Army families always ask me “where do you think I’m from?” because they know that’s not a fair question!
But in my experience, that produces an “aregional,” standard dialect … What happens is that they lack distinctive regional features. They don’t have anything in their speech that is characteristic of one place, because they weren’t in one place long enough to have that become a feature of their speech. Normally those folks just sound like they’re not from anywhere in particular.
What do you make of people who challenge candidates for “faking” accents, such as Hillary?
That’s such an interesting question. What counts as an authentic accent? That’s a matter of opinion, that’s a matter of ideology. The truth is everybody “code-switches” or switches the way they talk from one setting to another … Neither [accent] is “inauthentic.”
Now Hillary Clinton is a target, first and foremost, for who she is. People aren’t making fun of her because she changed up the way she talks. People are making fun of her because of who she is.
Claims of linguistic authenticity and inauthenticity have as much to do with other social factors as … linguistic facts. I think most linguists would say, well, is she being inauthentic? Well, in the sense that there aren’t very many times when she used that accent… But is that a problem? Should we be making fun of that? No. What she is doing is trying to accommodate to her audience, and trying to get people to like her, and trying to fit in. And we all do that in one way or another.
Do you think Hillary Clinton was “faking” her accent?
It is certainly fair to assert that a politician is talking in a way that he or she doesn’t normally talk … or that a politician is trying to approximate a dialect that is not native to him or her. That is what Hillary and lots of politicians have done. They do it because they want people to like them.
But as soon as you say that, you have to keep in mind that all of us do that in one way or another. I’m not from the South, so if I were to walk around Raleigh, North Carolina using [southernisms] and you said “Well you’re just faking that,” then I’d say “Sure I am, but it’s working!” I can tell you that I have adopted some southernisms that are maybe less salient, but I do it because people like me more when I do it.
So if people react badly to Hillary Clinton, that’s their right, but it’s not like she’s hurting anybody.
I will add a caveat to that, sometimes, there is misappropriation. If I were to be speaking to people who are African American and maybe speak a variety of English such as African American English … That can be criticized as … kind of handling linguistic indicators of an ethnic group to which I distinctly do not belong. It’s not that we don’t all accommodate, it’s about the social factors that are involved.
So really, candidates should avoid using accommodated accents unless they “work?”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
As our interview drew to a close, Dodsworth had one last tidbit to share: although I conducted our conversation entirely in my own “non-Southern,” accommodated accent, she pointed out that even my “hidden” Southern tendencies are noticeable to a trained ear.
You actually have [a noticeable] Southern aspect … For you it’s what we call the “pin-pen merger.” [meaning the two words sound the same when pronounced.]
Wait, I really do that?
Yeah, yeah. That’s a classic Southern feature. [laugher]
* This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.