Ask Language Log: "Anything" and "everything"

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LS, in Charleston, West Virginia, writes:

I have a question I've thought about for years, and today, when I decided to poke around google, I stumbled upon a blog that had your name.  Can you tell me why, in southern dialects where the velar nasal changes to a coronal nasal, there are two exceptions?  I know of no dialect that would "drop the g," as it were, in the words

everything and anything?

The being in human being is iffy.

If you can answer this, I'll be able to sleep at night again!

It's easy to explain why every#thing and any#thing are different from work+ing and try+ing: the phenomenon popularly known as "g-dropping" applies only to the ending spelled "-ing", not to words like thing, bring, sing, or compounds made up of them. As for why "human being is iffy", it's because the "-ing" ending in that case is the derivational ending that makes nouns out of verbs, which has had a velar consonant for millennia, rather than the present participle ending, which had a coronal consonant until a few hundred years ago, when some middle-class speakers in the south of England decided to start mispronouncing it with a velar.

As I explained in "The Internet Pilgrim's Guide to g-dropping", 5/10/2004,

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 [conservative] "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 at 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.

Variants of the g-dropping pattern are found among English speakers around the world, not just in the American south –though there remain southern varieties where the present participle ending is [ɪn] even in formal settings. (See also  "'G-dropping' as 'non-g-adding'", 10/8/2008).

And there's an extra wrinkle caused by the fact that many (American?) speakers pronounce the -ing ending with a coronal nasal but a tense vowel, [in] in IPA, as in the end of a word like keen or mean. This led some journalists to mis-transcribe Sarah Palin's shackling as "shackle-y" ("Is a title and a campaign too WHAT?", 9/29/2011; see also "Symbols and signals in g-dropping", 3/23/2011; etc.).

Finally, common words like anything, everything, something, are also commonly pronounced in a reduced way. Because the initial consonant of thing is also produced with the tip of the tongue, natural assimilatory processes can sometimes lead to productions of anything or everything with final coronal nasals. The assimilatory nature of this process can be seen in the often-different outcome in the case of something, where the labial ending of some can spread throughout a reduced second syllable, producing a pronunciation often written "sump'n". In IPA I guess this is something like [ˈsʌ̃.mʔm̩], where the first syllable has a strongly nasalized low back vowel, and the second syllable is  a glottalized [m] released into a syllabic [m̩].

Obviously the various reduced pronunciations of X-thing words are informal; and their distribution probably has geographical and social correlations, though I don't know anything non-impressionistic about this.

Anyhow, I hope that this will be enough to cure relieve LS of metaphorical morpho-phonological insomnia.



20 Comments

  1. BobC said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    I could swear I've heard people say anything as "en-a-thin". And what about the Human Be-In held in San Francsico in 1967? (wear some flowers in your hair!)

    [(myl) Your reference to be-ins was ironic, I'm sure -- but just in case there are some non-native speakers who don't get the joke, "be-in" is a play on "sit-in" (and "teach-in" and so on).]

  2. David L said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    "Oh, I got plenty o' nothin' and nothin's plenty for me…"

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SZuwxT2omw

    [(myl) As I noted in response to a comment about "nothin'" on an earlier post:

    My impression is also that the "nothin'" pronunciation is MUCH more common than "everythin'" or "anythin'", and somewhat more common than the reduced pronunciations of "something". Possible reasons might be that the "thing" part is more reduced when it immediately follows the main word stress; and that the initial [n] in "nothing" might prime later assimilation. But at this point, I suspect that there's some lexicalization involved — that is, people just learn reduced pronunciations for those two words.

    I don't know of any careful studies of the distribution of pronunciations of -thing words — even if there are some out there, I bet there's more to do, and this would be a good project for someone.]

  3. dw said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    The assimilatory nature of this process can be seen in the often-different outcome in the case of something, where the labial ending of some can spread throughout a reduced second syllable, producing a pronunciation often written "sump'n". In IPA I guess this is something like [ˈsʌ̃.mʔm̩], where the first syllable has a strongly nasalized low back vowel, and the second syllable is a glottalized [m] released into a syllabic [m̩].

    This reminds me that my 3-year-old daughter pronounces "something" as [ˈsʌmpɪŋ ~ ˈsʌmpiŋ] . She hasn't yet mastered the dental fricatives, so "thing" is [fɪŋ]. I assume that the [p] arose as a way to simplify the underlying /mf/ cluster.

  4. Janice Byer said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    "…my 3-year-old daughter pronounces "something" as [ˈsʌmpɪŋ ~ ˈsʌmpiŋ]"

    I was more than twice her age when I learned people aren't human beans.

  5. Lazar said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    I've definitely heard people here in Massachusetts pronounce "anything" as [ˈɛnəθɪn].

  6. Rubrick said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    A recent, unusually literal instance of g-dropping is chronicled here.

    I'm told that in the ink-on-newsprint version of the article, the headline was similarly treated, but that was later "corrected".

  7. lukys said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    Where I am, in Northern England, "everythin'" is reasonably common, but it varies from town to town.
    "Owt" and "nowt" are also common replacements for "anything" and "nothing".

  8. Nathan Sanders said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    Lazar's right, there is definitely a coronal nasal in anything in Massachusetts, at least in (far) western Massachusetts (northern Berkshire County). I noticed it especially among waitstaff in restaurants, in questions like "can I get you anythi[n] else?".

    They also call hamburger hamburg there (I've even seen it spelled that way on menus), so they are er-droppers, too.

  9. Chh said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

    I'm not sure what claim some of these counterexamples are supposed to relate to. The post doesn't say "no word ending in a velar nasal can be pronounced with a coronal nasal for some dialects or speakers". It says that the productive 'eng' to 'n' g-dropping pattern is restricted to a certain morphological domain- the '-ing' affix(es). Unless most of the English words ending in velar nasals are also/instead pronounced with coronal nasals by some people, how 'anything' or 'nothing' is pronounced isn't super interesting, is it?

    One cool piece of evidence that the morphological restriction on the g-dropping pattern isn't always available to us consciously is the rare but extant hypercorrection that goes like this:

    children -> childring , chicken -> chicking

    There's not much mention of this online, but I've heard it in northern New England at least.

    :)

  10. Andy Averill said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

    I Got Plenty of Nothing inspired me to check Broadway clips on YouTube. Looks like the G is dropped in "Somethin's Coming" from West Side Story, but not in "Anything you can do, I can do better" from Annie Get Your Gun.

  11. Rod Johnson said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    Something here prompted memories of my West Virginia-born grandmother (who also used to say things like "I don't mean mebbe"), who said "anythin" and "everythin" all the time. Childhood memories are poor evidence, but my cousins and I used to imitate her that way, so it must have been pretty salient to our ears.

    It seems like prosodic structure and various low-level phonetic processes are playing a role here. What I recall in my grandma's speech is that the second and especially third syllables were strongly reduced, the the point where the final [θɪn] was really more like [θn], with a syllabic [n]. If that is true, it may be that assimilation plays a role here—the apical closure for [θ] is never released. That seems to be true for me with nothing, in which the final syllable is unstressed, but not in anything, where it may have a weak secondary stress.

  12. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    I had always supposed that "anything" and "everything" escaped g-dropping simply because of the secondary accent on "thing".

    "Nothing" on the other hand doesn't have the secondary accent, so it can be g-dropped without attracting much notice.

    The etymological distinctions (different kinds of 'ing') aren't the sort of thing I'd have expected to retain much force now that the merger has actually happened.

  13. Dan T. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    There was a cereal commercial a few years ago that punned on the cereal name "Nut 'n' Honey" as "Nothing, honey", where "Nothing" was rendered not only with "n" instead of "ng", but also "t" instead of "th", resulting in "nut'n".

    Is the early Middle English "-ende" or "-inde" present participle suffix cognate with the Romance languages' similar "-ando", "-endo", "-iendo" suffix?

  14. LDavidH said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    And what about the British accents where -ing endings are pronounced with an audible g, i.e. working-g, sing-g-ing-g, or where the -thing words are pronounced -fink?

  15. anna said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    More anecdotal evidence: here in North Carolina, everythin', anythin', and nothin' are all reasonably common, especially in rural areas and doubly so in the mountains (well, at least circa Boone and the High Country, where I lived for a few years). I've heard it considerably less since moving to the Triangle (Raleigh/Durham area), but that may have a more to do with a fairly large number of northern transplants than an actual variation in the local native dialect.

  16. Bill Walderman said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    In 1961 my family spent a summer in rural western Connecticut. My recollection is that people from the area pronounced the town of Sterling with a coronal, which seemed odd to me. (At the time, in my ignorance, I would have thought of it as dropping the g.)

  17. dw said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

    @LDavidH;
    And what about the British accents where -ing endings are pronounced with an audible g, i.e. working-g, sing-g-ing-g, or where the -thing words are pronounced -fink?

    I grew up in one such area (Birmingham), although I never spoke with much of a local accent. However, I remember that "G-dropping" forms were unknown to me (both in my own speech and the speech of others) until I left the area, to the extent that I couldn't understand why anyone would write things like "droppin'" for "dropping".

  18. Liz said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

    @Nathan – you ought to hear us say "butter" "better". I have no idea what what we do is called, but it's rather like a glottal stop. Whatever it is, we don't actually pronounce the internal "T"s. More like :"bu er".

    "Do you like margarine?"
    "No. I like nu-in but bu-er".

    Central Berkshire County, MA

  19. Roy S said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    Liz – here in SW New Hampshire, I often hear the number "288" (e.g.) pronounced over the paging system as "too-a- a-"…

    oh, and "nuthin doinn" is a commonly heard way of emphatically declining a dubious invitation

  20. Dan Schneider said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    I have a good friend from the Bronx who says "dumplin'" instead of "dumpling". It really caught me off guard the first time he said it, because I thought that his internal rule was for gerunds and such, but it turns out that it's for all words ending in "-ing".

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