May 10, 2004

The Internet Pilgrim's guide to g-dropping

About a month ago, when Leon Wieseltier discussed his guest spot as "Stewart Silverman" on The Sopranos with Jeffrey Goldberg, he gave a vivid account of the sociolinguistic analysis that led him to choose and even emphasize a certain pronunciation of a certain word. However, his description of the pronunciation itself was completely mixed up, in an elementary and embarassing way. I don't mean that it was embarrassing for him -- perhaps it should have been, but I don't know whether he cares one way or the other whether he screws up elementary linguistic terminology in public. I mean that it was embarrassing for the profession of linguistics, which has failed in its educational responsibility.

Here's the crucial passage:

Goldberg: ... Your enunciation of the word "motherfucking" was perfect. I smell Emmy.

Wieseltier: ... I am delighted that you recognize the sociolinguistic analysis that went into the enunciation of my searing expletive. These things are not as easy as they seem. Needless to say, when I first read my lines I discovered parts of myself I never knew existed. As I pondered the character of Stewart Silverman, I began to grasp the inner necessity of the hard "g" in my "motherfucking." Our Italian-American brothers and our African-American brothers might surrender the concluding letter of the exclamation, so as to establish some integrity on the street.

But Stewart Silverman lives in perfect horror of the street. He doesn't even park on the street. ...such a fellow is a long way from authenticity. And so he would land very hard on that "g". He didn't go to BU for nothing. This is a man who is this week boasting to anybody who will listen that he once flew into West Palm on the same plane as Peter Bacanovic. In sum: motherfuckinggg.

Now, "hard g" means the pronunciation of "g" in gum, while "soft g" means the pronunciation of "g" in gem. And neither of the options for pronouncing the end of motherfucking has anything to do with either hard g's or soft g's.

Leon Wieseltier is the Literary Editor of The New Republic magazine. He's not just an acute observer of social relations, he's also highly educated and well read. He knows the word sociolinguistic, for instance, and he's not afraid to use it. But as I pointed out at the time, Wieseltier shares a blind spot with most other intellectuals today -- he can't describe the basic facts of language in a coherent way, because he doesn't know what the basic descriptive vocabulary means. We've seen other examples of this same problem recently, when intellectuals were discussing passive verb forms, or the structure of arguments, or hiphop vowel sounds.

Here at Language Log, we don't believe in blaming the victim. So instead of cursing the darkness, I'll light a small candle by offering a linguist's summary of about the whole -ing pronunciation business, often referred to as "g-dropping". As a bonus, this also counts as another installment in our recent series on language and gender, since it turns out that men and women are different in this respect (as well as in other ways, of course). And in honor of Wieseltier's role as Literary Editor, I'll throw in quotations from Galsworthy's Maid in Waiting and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover.

(As for the hard g/soft g thing, we'll have to take it up some other time).

What is "g-dropping"? The term comes from the conventional orthography: -ing is written as -in', as in she's openin' the door.

In fact, there is no "g" involved at all, except in the spelling. Final -ng (in English spelling) stands for a velar nasal, which is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as an "n" with a hook on its right leg: [ŋ], a symbol called "eng." The final -n' in spellings like openin' stands for a coronal nasal, which is written in IPA with an ordinary "n": [n]. In IPA, opening is written as [ˈopənɪŋ], while openin' is written as [ˈopənɪn]. The only difference in pronunciation is whether the final nasal consonant is velar (made with the body of the tongue pressed against the soft palate) or coronal (made with the blade of the tongue pressed against the ridge behind the front teeth).

Thus is "g-dropping" nothing is ever really dropped -- it's just a question of where you put your tongue at the end of the word.

Not all words ending in [ŋ] are candidates for g-dropping. English doesn't have a general alternation between final velar and coronal nasals: boomerang does not become boomeran', and ring does not become rin'. We are only talking about unstressed final -ing at the ends of words. In some dialects, g-dropping applies only to the inflectional suffix -ing (as in present participles such as trying), and not in words such as wedding or morning.

Historically, g-dropping is actually a more conservative pattern. The English present participle suffix was originally pronounced with a coronal, not a velar nasal: in early middle English, this inflection was -inde or -ende. There was a derivational ending -ung for making nouns out of verbs, which produced words like present-day "building." These eventually merged into the modern -ing suffix. In 19th- and early 20th-century England, the g-dropping pattern (which really was the "not g-adding pattern") marked the rural aristrocracy as well as the lower classes. Thus this passage from John Galsworthy's 1931 novel Maid in Waiting:

'Where on earth did Aunt Em learn to drop her g's?'
'Father told me once that she was a school where an undropped "g" was worse than a dropped "h". They were bringin' in a country fashion then, huntin' people, you know.'

The velar pronunciation, a middle-class innovation a couple of hundred years ago, has since become the norm for most educated speakers. Note, by the way, note that this is exactly the type of change that many prescriptivist language mavens rail against -- an innovation that systematically blurs a distinction between two formerly separate categories of words. Some g-dropping speakers cleanly maintain the old distinction -- for my wife, who is from Texas, tryin' or readin' are normal, but weddin' or buildin' are completely wrong.

Today, nearly all English speakers drop g's sometimes, but in a given speech community, the proportion varies systematically depending on formality, social class, sex, and other variables as well.

For instance, in a 1969 study done in New York City, Bill Labov found that in casual conversation, g-dropping varied with social class as follows:

  Lower class Working class Lower middle class Upper middle class
Percentage of g-dropping 80% 49% 32% 5%

In other words, as class status "rises," percentage of g-dropping falls.

However, formality also matters: members of a given social stratum drop g's more often in less formal speech. Thus for the lower class members:

  Casual speech Careful speech Reading
Percentage of g-dropping 80 53 22

In the 1969 NYC study, this pattern was maintained across the full interaction of social class and degree of formality:

A similar pattern was found in percentage of g-dropping from a study done in Norwich, England:

  Casual speech Careful speech Reading
Middle-middle class 28% 3% 10%
Lower middle class 42% 15% 10%
Upper working class 87% 74% 15%
Middle working class 95% 88% 44%
Lower working class 100% 98% 66%

Overall g-dropping rates seem to be somewhat higher in Norwich compared to New York. However, the general pattern of double dependence on social status and formality is maintained.

Similar studies have been done in many places, for many linguistic variables other than g-dropping, and the pattern is always the same: there is a sort of systematic analogy between social class and formality. There are several competing theories -- all interesting -- about why this is true, but the parallel between class and formality always holds.

Class is not the only social variable that tends to work this way. Another study of g-dropping, this time in Los Angeles, compared males and females of similar socio-economic status. Male speakers (other things equal) tend to use more informal (or lower-class) modes of speech than females do, and this study was no exception. At the same time, for both males and females, the percentage of g-dropping was greater in joking than in arguing:

  Joking Arguing
Males 46% 24%
Females 28% 21%

The difference between joking and arguing might be because joking creates a more informal speech style, or it might because there is a dimension of friendliness or intimacy that can also be involved in such things.

Consider the following passage from D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterly's Lover. Here Lady Chatterly (Connie), first encounters her husband Clifford's gamekeeper, Mellors.

Lord Clifford 'Thanks, then, for the help, Mellors,' said Clifford casually, as he began to wheel down the passage to the servants' quarters.
Mellors 'Nothing else, Sir?' came the neutral voice, like one in a dream.
Lord Clifford ' Nothing, good morning!'
Mellors 'Good morning, Sir.'
Connie 'Good morning! it was kind of you to push the chair up that hill. I hope it wasn't heavy for you,' said Connie, looking back at the keeper outside the door.
Mellors His eyes came to hers in an instant, as if wakened up. He was aware of her.
'Oh no, not heavy!' he said quickly
Mellors Then his voice dropped again into the broad sound of the vernacular:
'Good mornin' to your Ladyship!'

Lawrence tells us explicitly when Mellors is switching into a different part of his linguistic repertoire. Though he has used -ing in his 'Good morning, Sir', to Lord Clifford, he "drops into" the broad sound of the vernacular as he bids good morning to Lady Connie. (I don't know whether morning would really take the -in' ending in the country dialect that Mellors speaks, or if this is a descriptive mistake on Lawrence's part.)

This pattern is continued in the passage below, when Connie and Mellors meet next.

Connie 'I wondered what the hammering was,'
she said, feeling weak and breathless, and a little afraid of him, as he looked so straight at her.
Mellors 'Ah'm gettin' th' coops ready for th' young bods,'
he said, in broad vernacular.
[...break in text...]
Connie 'I'm just going,' she said.
Mellors 'Was yer waitin' to get in?'
he asked, looking at the hut, not at her.
[...break in text...]
Mellors 'I mean as 'appen Ah can find anuther pleece as'll du for rearin' th' pheasants. If yer want ter be 'ere, yo'll non want me messin' abaht a' th' time.'
Connie She looked at him, getting his meaning through the fog of the dialect. 'Why don't you speak ordinary English?' she said coldly.
Mellors 'Me! Ah thowt it wor ordinary.'

The question is, what is ordinary? Mellors is capable of approximating the language of his lord and lady; but for him, ordinary English is the vernacular.

He always uses "cold, good English" in speaking to Lord Clifford, but he varies his speech to Connie according to how he feels:
(Mellors discussing his job as a game keeper with Connie)
Mellors 'I had to go getting summonses for two poachers I caught, and, oh well, I don't like people.'
He spoke cold, good English, and there was anger in his voice.
Connie 'Do you hate being a game-keeper?' she asked.
Mellors ' Being a game-keeper, no! So long as I'm left alone. But when I have to go messing around at the police-station, and various other places, and waiting for a lot of fools to attend to me...oh well, I get mad...'

After Connie and Mellors have become lovers, he consistently uses the vernacular in speaking with her, including -in rather than -ing.

Mellors 'It isna horrid,' he said, 'even if tha thinks it is. An' tha canna ma'e it horrid. Dunna fret thysen about lovin' me.

Here the dimensions of formality and class have become aligned with the dimension of intimacy.

[Note: the above is adapted from my lecture notes for LING001 at Penn. The D.H. Lawrence passages were originally pointed out to me by Gillian Sankoff].

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 10, 2004 03:43 PM