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Droppin’ g’s

September 26, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

As I have listened to Sarah Palin in her interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, I have given some thought to how much her style of speaking English affects my judgment of her. I have tried to focus on the actual content of her remarks, not her accent. For instance, we all drop our g’s from time to time. It isn’t in itself a sign of education or lack thereof, of intelligence or lack thereof.

In this context, the linguist Arnold Zwicky has an interesting post today at Language Log, entitled What Palin’s gonna do. Zwicky begins by taking Philip Gourevitch to task for using the spelling ‘gonna’ in quoting Palin in the recent New Yorker article The State of Sarah Palin (September 22 issue).

What stands out here — for a linguist, anyway — is the five occurrences of the spelling gonna for written standard going to. I’ll take Gourevitch’s word that this is the way Palin pronounced the expression, but why did he transcribe it that way? …

First point: gonna is an entirely standard, though informal variant of going to, at least in American English. … Instances of gonna from standard-English American speakers in relaxed contexts are all over the place, and it’s not hard to find the occasional instance from such speakers (even prestigious ones) in formal contexts. Normally we’d expect such occurrences of gonna to to be represented as going to in print.

Zwicky also addresses g-dropping, and refers back to an old post by Mark Liberman, which I highly recommend, for a discussion of this practice. I’ll summarize a few of Liberman’s points below.

1. What’s at issue isn’t actually dropping a ‘g’.

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.

2. A person who routinely drops g’s isn’t simply dropping them from all occurrences of ‘ing’. For example, “boomerang does not become boomeran’, and ring does not become rin’. We are only talking about unstressed final -ing at the ends of words.”

3. Not dropping the ‘g’ has become normal only recently in the history of the language.

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.

4. We all do it. “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.”

Categories: Language, Politics
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