"G-dropping" in songs and life

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One of the requirements for the Introduction to Linguistics course that I teach is a term project, for which I ask students to

In plain language: explain something about how a piece of talk works.

More exactly: analyze the communicative effects of some aspects of one or more linguistic performances, attending to at least two different levels of linguistic analysis.

This is just one part of one introductory undergraduate class (it counts for 20% of the grade), but most of the 120 course participants do something interesting. This year, two students looked at the differences in g-dropping rates between musical performances and interviews, for two quite different performers.

[For background, see "The Internet Pilgrim's Guide to G-dropping", 5/10/2004, and "Symbols and signals in g-dropping", 3/23/2011.]

Student AF looked at six of Taylor Swift's songs and three of her interviews. In the interviews, AF found that Ms. Swift used the "dropped g" form ([ɪn] rather than [ɪŋ]) in just 2 out of 52 opportunities. (Interestingly, in both cases these were the first -ing words in the interview.) In contrast, in the six songs, she used the "dropped g" form in 87 out of 103 opportunities.

Student JM looked at three of Aubrey "Drake" Graham's raps, and one of his interviews. In the raps, JM found that Drake used the "dropped g" form in 40 of 49 opportunities; in the interview, just once in 17 opportunities.

There are two effects here: the interview format will influence someone to speak in a more formal style, and therefore to use fewer g-dropping forms; and the two musical genres here (country pop and rap) are both traditionally based on varieties of English where g-dropping is normal.  Based on these artists' biographies, AF and JM suggest that their native speech patterns may be closer to the way they speak in the interviews, while their musical performances accommodate to the expectations of the genres they work in.

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  1. Ray Girvan said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    the two musical genres here (country pop and rap) are both traditionally based on varieties of English where g-dropping is normal

    This is interesting; one of my pet peeves in this context is people who insist that dialect forms in pop songs ("there ain't no cure for the summertime blues" etc) are merely sloppy English inserted for scansion and lyric flow, rather than reflecting the dialects/sociolects in which pop has/had its roots.

  2. Harold said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    Pete Seeger is an interesting case. In performance drops his gs but his enunciation of other consonants strikes me as hyper-precise — useful in when trying to get song texts across to large audiences. Then again his repertoire is largely informal and country (folk), as above. He speaks that way in interviews as well, however. My hunch is that he is always in "performance mode" (Don't get me wrong, I love Pete Seeger.)

    [(myl) It's important to recognize that the variation in the pronunciation of the -ing affix is not at all a matter of "precision". In one of the linked posts, I point out that some regional varieties of American English retain the Middle English distinction between -inde and -ung. Speakers of those varieties would insist that it's those Yankees that are sloppy, merging two completely separate morphemes and losing a useful morphosyntactic distinction.

    Pete Seeger was not a native speaker of one of these conservative dialects -- Wikipedia tells us that

    Seeger was born in French Hospital, Midtown Manhattan, the youngest of three sons. He came from a distinguished, prosperous family, which he described as "enormously Christian, in the Puritan, Calvinist New England tradition."

    However, he came from a family of musicological scholars, and did a pretty good job of adopting the patterns of the folk traditions he imitated. Of course, this is part of the same picture as the performance practices of Drake and Taylor Swift.]

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    Something clicked in my head, so I played back Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and looked online for printed lyrics (pretty much the same) and was intrigued to find a pretty even mix of g-dropping and not-g-dropping. Sometimes it seems like a dialectical choice; other times it seems more euphonious. That's the 1-minute analysis, anyway.

  4. linda seebach said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    Isn't calling this phenomenon "G-dropping" an artifact of a spelling convention? There's no G in [ɪŋ]. What would we be calling it if [ŋ] were simply a letter in the alphabet?

    [(myl) It's a rather misleading traditional name, but it *is* a traditional name. I discussed the issue in the linked post from 2004.

    Do you have an alternative suggestion for a short word or phrase for the phenomenon?]

  5. John said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    Interesting observations/data, but how would one go about proving the hypotheses presented, given that various explanations have been given (e.g., more formal setting, original dialects) which rely on different motivations?

    If I talk to my mom one way, to an interviewer another and in song yet another, which shows my "real" pattern?

    [(myl) One part of the hypothesis is that g-dropping is culturally associated with certain song genres whose roots are in regional or ethnic varieties in which g-dropping is standard: rap and country. I don't know any systematic empirical tests of this, but I'd bet a substantial sum of money on how one would turn out.

    Another part of the hypothesis is that the native variety of the two artists in question has a relatively low rate of g-dropping. In the case of Blake, Wikipedia tells us that

    Drake's father is an African American from Memphis, Tennessee, and Drake's mother is a white Jewish Canadian. He attended a Jewish day school and had a Bar Mitzvah. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and he was raised by his mother in Toronto's wealthy Forest Hill neighborhood. Drake attended high school at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, where he began acting, but did not graduate. He spent most summers with his father in Memphis.

    This suggests that he might be bi-dialectal, so to speak; but it makes sense that his formal interview persona would be upper-middle-class Canadian.

    In the case of Taylor Swift, Wikipedia tells us that she

    ... was born on December 13, 1989, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and raised in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. She is the daughter of Andrea Gardner (née Finlay), a homemaker who previously worked in finance, and Scott Kingsley Swift, a stockbroker. Her maternal grandmother, Marjorie Finlay (née Moehlenkamp), was an opera singer.

    Again, this is a background likely to be associated with a relatively low rate of g-dropping.

    It's certainly true that people from all backgrounds modulate their g-dropping rate for many reasons, including formality, intimacy, accommodation to interloculors, and so on. But someone's native dialect(s) will also shift the pattern up and down in a major way.

    The point of these two project reports is that the cultural norms of certain musical genres also have a strong effect.]

  6. Ø said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    Somewhat related: Erin McKean's The Word column in today's Boston Globe, about the urge many people have to correct "ungrammatical" song lyrics.

  7. mollymooly said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    Students less able than AF and JM could try shooting at the fish in the barrel marked Country 'n' Irish".

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    Isn't "g dropping" but one of many artifacts of expression in song versus speech? Music and song can profoundly change one's ability to articulate. Jim Nabors and Mel Tillis come to mind as examples of people whose speech and song are as if from separate people.

    While English does not have a letter "ŋ", the "g" is definitely present in finger and linger, to name two among many. I think the "n" is actually the vanishing consonant.

  9. diogenes said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

    is there any correspondence between g-dropping and t-dropping? Is t-dropping something that happens in American English? I am not referring to the glottal stop but the way that it seems to be vanishing at the end of words in British English. Try listening to the BBC, for example, and very few final t's are sounded these days.

  10. Eleanor said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    Apologies if this is a silly question, but can likelihood of g-dropping be affected by the sound which comes next (or even whether it's a pause in the line rather than another immediately succeeding sound)?

  11. army1987 said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    Isn't "g dropping" but one of many artifacts of expression in song versus speech? Music and song can profoundly change one's ability to articulate.

    If that was the reason, you would also expect to find it in words such as ring, sing etc.

  12. Andrew Electric said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    "their musical performances accommodate to the expectations of the genres they work in."

    Methinks this is not quite as complicated as the statement leads one to believe. It's likely less genre-expectation and closer to the fact that it's just easier to drop fat rhymes when you lop off the g in gerunds.

    [(myl) If I understand what you mean, it's either false or irrelevant. Most of the -ing words in the song lyrics are not in rhyming position. And those that are mostly rhyme with other -ing words.]

  13. mgh said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

    in light of your recent conversational accommodation post, did either student keep track of g-dropping on the part of the interviewer? I am wondering, for example, if Taylor Swift started out the interview with g-dropping and then switched when the interviewer didn't do the same.

  14. Ryan said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    I once wrote an undergraduate linguistics paper hypothesizing that rock and blues singers in performance affected features of dialects they didn't speak natively, in order to enhance aspects of their authenticity. Particularly, whatever they perceived to be "Southern" (American), even if they were British. G-dropping and the monophthongization of /ai/ were among the tokens I counted, and it happens a lot, let me tell you.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    @diogenes: I haven't noticed t-dropping, so if it happens in American English, it's rare. Also, keep in mind, unlike your t-dropping example, nothing is actually dropped with g-dropping, as there's no audible g either way. Rather one version has the N pronounced as if a G or K sound followed, and the other has an ordinary N sound. The N sound changes without anything being dropped, as there was never an audible G in the first place.

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    Diogenes said:

    I am not referring to the glottal stop but the way that it seems to be vanishing at the end of words in British English. Try listening to the BBC, for example, and very few final t's are sounded these days.

    I have what is sometimes called a BBC accent, and I'd be very surprised if you're hearing 't-dropping'. It's a glottal stop, or a pre-glottalised [ʔt]. I'm pretty sure I don't know anyone English and sober who would pronounce, say, 'cat' as [kʰæ].

    RP English has always had glottal stops, but they certainly have increased in frequency over the last fifty years, probably under the influence of Estuary and Cockney. I and many others also have the occasional American-style flapped [ɾ] in the same positions as the [ʔ], but I don't know what motivates them.

    The aristocracy – to get back on topic – used to g-drop too, as I believe MYL has mentioned before.

  17. Andy Averill said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

    Anybody do a project on Obama's rate of g-dropping? Seems like it depends what audience he's talking to.

    [(myl) Been there, done that: e.g. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=732. Of course, the field is open for you to follow your own suggestion and do better.]

  18. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

    With those AmE dialects that preserve the -inde / -ung distinction in their g-dropping distribution, do grammarians consider them to still have a separate gerund and participle?

  19. Joe Rembetikoff said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    Final "t"s and "d"s are dropped in some varieties of American English, in certain situations. For example, I might say "brand new" as "bran new," "friends" as "frenz," "cost" as "cos," "granted" as "granned," and "just" as "jis." As a kid, I hyper-corrected "chess" so it sounded like "chest" and "Thermos" to "thermost." But words like hit, dart, and learned retain their final consonants. It's nothing new here, I don't think.

  20. Mr Punch said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

    There are also pronunciations that are used in singing to keep the tune moving (as I think of it) that do not appear in speech at all — an example being "elver" for "ever."

  21. Ø said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    What's an example of this "elver"?

  22. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

    Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems that what we call "g dropping" has more to do with an adjustment of the "i" vowel from front to mid. The change to the unstressed consonant follows from that.

    It's easy to say "fishing," for example. Less easy, for me anyway, to say "fishəng." My vocal apparatus wants to change that to "fishən."

    [(myl) Actually, there's a common pattern of using a higher and fronter vowel with a coronal nasal -- see the discussion in the second link in the post above.]

  23. Mark F. said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    Andy – I couldn't find one with a quick Google search, but see this LL post: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3193. One underlying claim of the posts referenced there is that sending signals by adjusting your rate of g-dropping is very common and natural.

  24. Martin J Ball said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

    Amazing the amount of 'folk phonetics' that this post has spawned!

  25. Eric P Smith said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Yes, the British Aristocracy used to g-drop, but in a more "polite" version: not [ɪn] but [in], as my ear recalls from my youth. Still heard in equestrian sports.

  26. kenny said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    Isn't this simply a function of focusing more on vowels in song? Forgive me, I'm not a phonologist, but like, isn't [ɪŋ] more of a shift that takes longer or requires more effort to pronounce than just [ɪn]?

    [(myl) Doesn't happen in opera singing, in madrigals, etc. Not a plausible explanation, in my opinion.]

    Like, I'm thinking about how lots of singers drop syllable-final r's although their regular speech doesn't have much r-dropping.

  27. Andrew Greene said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

    Just to show how strong cultural conditioning is: I saw this headline and wondered what "ropping" means and why you would want to do it to G-d. And even once I figured out what it means, I still can't help but see it that way.

  28. Just another Peter said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 12:27 am

    Ø said,
    Somewhat related: Erin McKean's The Word column in today's Boston Globe, about the urge many people have to correct "ungrammatical" song lyrics.

    Reminds me of this bit from The IT Crowd:

    Roy: [singing a Pink Floyd song] “We don’t need no education.”
    Moss: “Yes you do. You’ve just used a double negative.”

  29. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 4:40 am

    If that was the reason, you would also expect to find it in words such as ring, sing etc.

    I have mentioned previously that I know quite a few Irish people who g-drop in the word "bring" ( a word which for different reasons is employed in many context where British people would use "take").

  30. gordonoz said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 6:12 am

    In parts of Britain the g in `ing' endings is pronounced as a hard and definite g. In Lancashire in particular this is very common. Perhaps the parts of Britain (most of the North of England and parts of the Midlands) that were colonised by Danes and Saxons were used to the `ink' endings in the Germanic languages.

  31. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 6:21 am

    To clarify gordonoz's point, the velar nasal is fully pronounced in those accents/dialects, but followed by a /g/. This can happen word-internally, as in /'sɪŋgə/ for 'singer'.

  32. gordonoz said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 6:48 am

    Thank you, Pflaumbaum; I was struggling for the right technical terms and examples.

  33. Henning Makholm said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    @gordonoz: The problem with that theory is that the present participle ending in Danish and German is still "-ende", and has never been "-ing" there, much less "-ink". And the gerund, to the extent we use such a thing, is "-en". (In fact, I cannot offhand think of any current Danish word with "-ink" that doesn't have a direct English cognate also ending in "-ink").

  34. diogenes said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:08 am

    Pflambaum – not wishing to labour the off-topic debate but if you listen to the latest BBC Sherlock series – eg a A Scandal in Belgravia – Lestrade who speaks an estuarial dialect, usually drops the final "t"; Irene Adler who speaks modern RP drops it quite often; Watson regularly drops it, Sherlock and Mycroft occasionally drop it. Adler even says "Goodnigh, Mr Sherlock Holmes"

  35. richard howland-bolton said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:09 am

    @ Ø
    As that be-knighted and well-known one-time student at the LSE once sang:
    "I cannot obtain any satisfaction. / I cannot obtain any female reaction, / And I have tried / And I have endeavored, / And I have striven, / And I have attempted…" ???

  36. richard howland-bolton said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:13 am

    @myl
    "It's a rather misleading traditional name, but it *is* a traditional name. I discussed the issue in the linked post from 2004.
    Do you have an alternative suggestion for a short word or phrase for the phenomenon?"

    Right leg droppin'?

  37. Brian said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    But what about G-adding? Over the weekend I was listening to Janis Ian sing "Stars," and once again I was distracted by her pronunciation of "singing," "bringing," and "swinging," all of which have a nice hard g in the middle: "siŋging." She's more than halfway from "siŋing" to "sinking."

  38. Colin John said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:58 am

    @Brian
    The intrusive 'g' in that position is a feature of some dialects, particularly in Central England. Many people from Birmingham (UK) will pronounce that internal 'g' in the name of the city (unless they say 'Brummagem', of course) as well as in 'finger', etc . That still doesn't explain Janis Ian; though the last time I saw her was in Warwick.

  39. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    For a bit of perhaps contrary evidence, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BdTu1IhsSg is Joan Baez singing the trad./public domain "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" circa the summer of '75. It is almost completely devoid of g-dropping, which given the numerous other vernacular/non-prestige features (the ain't, the double-negative, the dropped final consonant in "gonna build a brand new worl'") strikes me as odd/inconsistent. Are there actually varieties/registers of English that standardly include all of those features without g-dropping, or is this an example of a classic "folkie" from a an upper-middle-class sort of background who is for (perhaps perfectly legitimate) aesthetic/ideological reasons trying to sing in a language variety not her own and getting the details a bit off? (Note also that she updated the lyrics to make the song topical which in hindsight makes it hilariously dated – among those whom she ain't gonna let turn her around is Indira Gandhi, and it took some considerable mental effort before I could recall why earnest American liberals who didn't drop their g's might have been upset with Prime Minister Gandhi as of 1975.)

  40. The Ridger said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    @JW Brewer: I expect this is simply Baez having learned the words (syntax) but not the accent (ng being her native, rather than ŋ).

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    @diogenes

    I just skimmed through two episodes, and they're all glottal stops for me. Her 'goodnight' is [gʉd'naɪʔ], though maybe with some glottalising of the /dn/ cluster too.

    Mind you, her RP isn't very convincing, if indeed that's how the character's meant to speak. I wondered if the actress was Australian, but it seems she's from Southend, so probably has an Essex accent.

  42. Brian said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    J.W. Brewer says: "Are there actually varieties/registers of English that standardly include all of those features without g-dropping, or is this an example of a classic "folkie" from a an upper-middle-class sort of background who is for (perhaps perfectly legitimate) aesthetic/ideological reasons trying to sing in a language variety not her own and getting the details a bit off?"

    Some people — especially actors, I suppose, but singers too — seem to make a beeline to g-dropping when they want to represent rural speech, but my real-life experience indicates that this can be exactly the wrong approach.

    My first partner was from a small North Carolina town ("it's near Lumberton" is how he would locate it). He was college educated and spoke "broadcaster" English. So I was stunned when his teenage brother stayed with us for the summer: "I throwed the ball and I knowed the dog would git it." Not only did the brother rarely drop a g, he actually pronounced -ing words as spondees: "I was think-ing of eat-ing some chicken," with a nice long ee sound in the -ings. This wasn't hypercorrectness in the presence of the highfalutin, either; that wouldn't have dawned on him and he wouldn't have cared to make such an effort.

    Flash forward 20 years and my current partner is from Sardis, Ky., population 149. He and his family also commonly do the spondee thing on -ing words, without dropping the g's.

    I can't vouch for everything Joan Baez ever did, but retaining her g's might indicate that she is being extra-authentic, not slipshod. I'm sure there are places where droppin' g's is the only way to go, but there's also a large swath of the rural South where it might mark you as an impostor.

  43. army1987 said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    @Eleanor:

    I bet G-dropping has a significantly lower prevalence when the following word starts with /k/ or /g/. :-)

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