Drawl on Demand

Does Hillary Clinton really speak with two accents?

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Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., declared herself “multilingual” on Friday, saying that her on-again, off-again Southern twang will be a plus for her candidacy. Clinton’s Democratic adversaries Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John Edwards have also faced allegations of linguistic pandering to potential voters. (Click to hear Clinton’s accent and Obama’s.) Does anyone naturally speak with more than one accent?

Yes, lots of people do. We’re all guilty of changing the way we speak in subtle ways, depending on whom we’re talking to. Linguists call this “code shifting”—you don’t want to talk to your boss the same way you talk to your old college roommates. We often code shift subconsciously, by picking up other people’s speech patterns (as anyone who has ever studied abroad probably knows). Politicians and actors, on the other hand, sometimes hire vocal coaches to help them with their speech. But it isn’t too difficult to adopt a bit of a twang. It’s easier to match an accent if you’ve heard quite a bit of it—as Clinton has from the mouth of her Arkansas-born husband. (American politicians aren’t the only leaders who try to sound more down-home: Last year, England’s Queen Elizabeth was accused of folksying up her speech.)

Our accents develop as we acquire language and speech skills in early childhood—before the age of 6, for most people. By the early teen years, our accents are pretty firmly entrenched, matching the cues provided by those around us. * A conscious attempt to change your natural accent can take some time. It depends on how good a mimic you are, whether you want to be able to stay “in accent” all the time or just once in a while, and other factors. Those who succeed won’t have made a permanent shift. A Southerner who moves to New York and wants to drop the twang will often pick it up again when he visits home (or has a few drinks).

A very small number of people seem to change their accent as a result of brain damage. As of 2003, doctors have reported fewer than 20 cases of foreign accent syndrome, which leaves sufferers with brand-new speech patterns. For example, an Indiana woman suffered a stroke in 1999 and subsequently picked up a mixture of West Country and cockney British accents. (Listen to someone suffering from FAS here.)

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Explainer thanks Dennis Baron of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Paul Meier of the University of Kansas, Wanda Webb of Vanderbilt University, and Steven Weinberger of George Mason University. *

Correction, May 1, 2007: This article originally stated that a study showed cows have “regional accents.” That “study” was a now-debunked PR hoax. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, May 2, 2007: This article originally spelled Steven Weinberger’s first name incorrectly. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)