Empathetic -in'

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In a recent exchange ("Pinker on Palin's 'nucular'", 10/5/2008; "Pinker contra Nunberg re nuclear/nucular", 10/17/2008; "Nucular riposte", 10/18/2008), Steven Pinker and Geoffrey Nunberg disagreed, among other things, about whether President George W. Bush is engaging in "conscious linguistic slumming" when he uses the pronunciation commonly written as "nucular". Geoff argued that

George Bush … can't be exculpated for saying "nucular." After all, it isn't likely that that version was frequently heard at Andover, Yale, or the Kennebunkport dinner table. In his mouth, it's what I've described as a "faux-bubba" pronunciation. … And … deliberately down-shifting to a misanalyzed pronuncation of nuclear is a lot more culpable as linguistic slumming goes than merely dropping a g now and again.

But Steve countered that

People generally end up with the accents of their late childhood and early adolescent peers, so Midland and Houston were the formative influences on Bush's accent, rather than Kennebunkport and Andover.

I have no instinct about the relative culpability of "going nucular" and "g-dropping". But I do feel that the pronunciation of -ing is much more useful as a sociopolitical variable than the pronunciation of nuclear is — it's much commoner, in the first place, and it's also much more likely to vary. Furthermore, it allows us to balance our discussion in partisan terms, because the current candidate who deploys this variable in the most politically interesting way is Barack Obama.

But first, a few words about "g-dropping" in general. (For additional background, please refer to the "Internet Pilgrim's Guide to g-dropping", 5/10/2004.)  To start with, nothing is ever really dropped, and there are no g's involved — we're talking about the choice between a coronal nasal and a velar nasal — IPA [ɪn] vs. [ɪŋ] — in pronouncing the inflectional suffix -ing. In the second place, nearly every native speaker of English, all around the world, chooses the coronal nasal — the "g-dropping" version — some fraction of the time. And in the third place, that fraction varies with social class, formality, gender, affect, and many other variables.

It's important to note that many of these factors co-vary in a coherent way. Other things equal, the rate of "g-dropping" goes up with lower social class; goes up with greater informality; and goes up with more positive affect (e.g. joking vs. arguing). Without using a loaded word like "slumming", and indeed without raising the question of consciousness at all, we should note that every one of us is making many choices about self-presentation every time we open our mouth, and in particular we add  a brush-stroke to our self-portrait every time we choose a pronounciation for the English gerund-participle suffix -ing.

In the first 40 minutes of the first presidential debate (transcript, mp3), Senator Obama used 84 gerund-participles, and dropped 8 g's. A g-dropping rate of about 10% is not at all out of line for someone in his position — in comparison, in the same period of the same debate, Senator McCain dropped 10 g's in 66 opportunities. (In both cases, I've left out all instances of the sequence "going to", which is especially interesting but also behaves in a special way.)

The key thing, though, is not the percentage but the positioning. Here are Senator Obama's first four (non-going-to) -ing words, one of which gets the coronal nasal that people call "g-dropping":

Well, thank you very much, Jim, and thanks to the commission and the University of Mississippi, "Ole Miss," for hosting us tonight. I can't think of a more important time for us to talk about the future of the country. You know, we are at a defining moment in our history. Our nation is involved in two wars, and we are going through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And although we've heard a lot about Wall Street, those of you on Main Street I think have been strugglin' for a while, and you recognize that this could have an impact on all sectors of the economy.

Here are the (non-consecutive)  sentences containing his next four dropped g's (along with five -ing words pronounced with a velar nasal that happen to be picked up in the same net):

And unless we are holding ourselves accountable day in, day out, not just when there's a crisis for uh folks who have power and influence and can hire lobbyists, but for the nurse, the teacher, the police officer, who, frankly, at the end of each month, they've got a little financial crisis goin' on. They're havin' to take out extra debt just to make their mortgage payments. We haven't been paying attention to them.

And that means that the ordinary American out there who's collectin' a paycheck every day, they've got a little extra money to be able to buy a computer for their kid, to fill up on this gas that is killing them.

And when you look at your tax policies that are directed primarily at those who are doing well, and you are neglecting people who are really strugglin' right now, I think that is a continuation of the last eight years, and we can't afford another four.

And what that means, then, is that there are people out there who are workin' every day, who are not getting a tax cut, and you want to give them more.

In general, at least from this evidence, Senator Obama's "dropped g's" tend to occur in verb forms whose subjects are "ordinary Americans", and whose meaning has something to do with the struggles of ordinary life. For some confirmation of this trend, we can look at his opening statement in the third debate, which has 14 (non-going-to) gerund-participles. He pronounces one of them with a "dropped g" — and I bet you could guess which one it is, even if I didn't write it -in' as I have below:

Uh I think everybody understands at this point that we uh are experiencing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  And the financial rescue plan that Sen. McCain and I supported is a important first step. Uh and I pushed for some core principles: making sure that taxpayers can get their money back uh if they're putting money up. Making sure that CEOs are not enriching themselves uh through this process.  Uh and I think that it's going to take some time uh to work itself out. But what we haven't yet seen is a rescue package for the middle class.  Because the fundamentals of the economy were weak even before uh this latest crisis. So I've proposed four specific things that I think can help.  Number one, let's focus on jobs. I want to end the tax breaks for companies that are shipping jobs overseas and provide a tax credit for every company that's creating a job right here in America.  Number two, let's help families right away by providing them a tax cut — a middle-class tax cut for people makin' less than $200,000, and let's allow them to access their IRA accounts without penalty if they're experiencing a crisis.  Uh now Sen. McCain, I agree with your idea that we've got to help homeowners. That's why we included in the financial package uh a proposal to get uh homeowners in a position where they can renegotiate their mortgages. I disagree with Sen. McCain in how to do it, because the way Sen. McCain has designed his plan, it could be a giveaway to banks if we're buying full price for mortgages that now are worth a lot less, and we don't want to waste taxpayer money. And we've got to get the financial uh sit- uh package working much quicker than it's been working. Last point I want to make, though. We've got some long-term challenges in this economy that have to be dealt with. We've got to fix our energy policy that's giving our wealth away. We've got to fix our health care system and we've got to invest in our education system for every young person to be able to learn.

Senator Obama's empathetic -in' is congruent with the general tendency of "g-dropping" to correlate with lower SES, greater informality, and more positive affect. But it's not the only way to deploy a limited fraction of dropped g's — and for an example of a different style, we don't have to look beyond his opponent, Senator John McCain, who drops g's at a similar rate, but in a somewhat different set of circumstances. In particular, in the first debate, Sen. McCain dropped four of his first nine g's — and all four are part of verbal constructions with first-person subjects:

I also want to thank the University of Mississippi for hosting us tonight. And Jim I- I- I've been not feelin' too great about a lot of things lately, so have a lot of Americans who are facing challenges. But I'm feelin' a little better tonight,  and I'll tell you why. Because as we're here tonight in this debate, we are seeing, for the first time in a long time, Republicans and Democrats together, sitting down,  trying to work out a solution to this fiscal crisis that we're in.  And have no doubt about the magnitude of this crisis. And we're not talkin' about failure of institutions on Wall Street, we're talkin' about failures on Main Street …

[It's interesting that in front of a rather different sort of audience, at the recent Alfred E. Smith dinner in New York, neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain dropped a single g, as far as I can tell from a quick listen... (transcript, Obama video, McCain video)]

Now, what I've given you so far is a mildly quantitative anecdote. But you can easily find a lot of recorded speeches and interviews by these two men (and many other politicians), from which you could gather the data for a more serious and meaningful study. So if you're looking for a term project for a (certain sort of) course in linguistics, or political science, or rhetoric — the answers are Out There.

[Note in passing: Peggy Noonan apparently agrees with Geoff Nunberg's faux-bubba theory, and thinks that even one dropped g is too many ("Palin's Failin'", 10/17/2008):

More than ever on the campaign trail, the candidates are dropping their G's. Hardworkin' families are strainin' and tryin'a get ahead. It's not only Sarah Palin but Mr. McCain, too, occasionally Mr. Obama, and, of course, George W. Bush when he darts out like the bird in a cuckoo clock to tell us we are in crisis. All of the candidates say "mom and dad": "our moms and dads who are struggling." This is Mr. Bush's former communications adviser Karen Hughes's contribution to our democratic life, that you cannot speak like an adult in politics now, that's too austere and detached, snobby. No one can say mothers and fathers, it's all now the faux down-home, patronizing—and infantilizing—moms and dads. Do politicians ever remember that in a nation obsessed with politics, our children—sorry, our kids—look to political figures for a model as to how adults sound?

An increase in Gross National G-Dropping is not among the more serious dangers now threatening the republic, it seems to me. But do politicians deploy linguistic variants for tactical advantage? They'd hardly be human if they didn't.]

[Update: Mr. Verb was all over the Noonan piece earlier this morning.]



24 Comments

  1. Ellen K. said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 8:48 am

    I hear two different vowels in -ing versus -in'. Two different phonemes, whereas the [n] versus [ŋ] I don't perceive as different phonemes, though I can clearly feel the difference as i say them. I notice though, you have them with the same vowel sound. I'm curious about that. And I presume it relates to the phenomenon discussed a while back on in a post on Literal-Minded as its following comments. Link.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:00 am

    Ellen K: I hear two different vowels in -ing versus -in'.

    Some people have [in] (with the FLEECE vowel) rather than [ɪn] (with the KIT vowel) for the g-dropped version. It doesn't sound to me like either Obama or McCain is one of those people, though I haven't tried to measure the relevant formants.

    As the discussion at Literal Minded observes, there's no /i/-/ɪ/ distinction before /ŋ/ in most varieties of English, and different varieties of English have different pronunciations for the merged category. In my own speech, the vowel of king is more like kin than like keen — and I think the same is true for both Obama and McCain, though again I haven't measured — but it goes the opposite way for some people, e.g. for many American southerners.

  3. Bobbie said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    So much has changed in the past 60 years — iincluding a rush to informality. Contrast the speaking style of FDR (which seems very stodgy to today's listeners) with that of George W Bush. I, for one, can't say that the assumed folksiness of W is more of an attempt to get close to voters than Roosevelt's Fireside Chats were. But I doubt that listeners in the 1940s felt that FDR was talking down to them (or did they?) Meanwhile, W may have cultivated his ability to "talk stupid" in an attempt to endear himself with the "Average Joe."

  4. mollymooly said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:31 am

    "there's no /i/-/ɪ/ distinction before /ŋ/" — tell that to the people of Bweeng, County Cork!

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    mollymooly: "there's no /i/-/ɪ/ distinction before /ŋ/" — tell that to the people of Bweeng, County Cork!

    With apologies to County Cork, I've duly qualified the original statement. Though perhaps I shouldn't have — are there actually any minimal pairs?

  6. Timothy Martin said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    This is slightly off topic, but hopefully someone won't mind answering:

    Before I learned in a linguistics class that the "ng" in "ing" words is actually its own sound, I thought that it was just an N sound followed by a G (i.e. [ng]). In my experience, unless they're told otherwise, most native English speakers grow up with the same impression. So my question is, is this misunderstanding due entirely to the fact that we spell [ŋ] with an "ng"?

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    Is the "g droppin'" phenomenon an example of a more general consonant strength reduction? I can't think of a good English example that might illustrate this, but some languages have regular consonant gradation, which presumably must have evolved through some phonological process that's still going on today. (Of particular note, Finnish has a "nk" -> "ng" weakening, phonetically [ŋk] -> [ŋ], as part of a series that also includes "kk" -> "k", "k" -> "" (or sometimes "h"), and other changes: long to short, unvoiced to voiced, IIRC at least one stop to fricative.) I know I've at least heard of English dialects that "t drop" at the end of some stressed syllables.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    Garrett Wollman: Is the "g droppin'" phenomenon an example of a more general consonant strength reduction?

    No. As I understand it, there were historically two distinct endings, a present participle suffix -inde or -ende and a nominalizing suffix -ung. These merged to -ing in certain middle-class dialects, while remaining separate in both lower-class and (until recently) aristocratic forms of English.

    Thus the historical process is not "g-dropping" but "g-adding", and the (e.g. American southern) speakers who retain the distinction between the participle buildin' and the noun building are conservative rather than innovative.

    For an example of consonant gradation, you could look at the complex of phonetic processes that weaken consonants in the environments of the so-called "flapping" rule, so that /t/ turns into a voiced tap (making latter and ladder homophonous for most Americans), /k/ turns from a stop into a fricative (e.g. in taking), etc.

  9. Arthaey Angosii said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    For me, using /ŋ/ in gerund -ing sounds very unnatural (if I say it; I don't really notice when other speakers say it).

    King is definitely [kiŋ], but keeping is [kipin] for me. My "dropped g" keepin' is [kipɪn]. That is, my final consonant is the same; it's the vowel that determines my informal/relaxed version of pronouncing -ing.

    Keeping as [kipiŋ] sounds forced when I say it. It makes me thing of Peking, actually — something foreign.

    I think this is slightly different from the discussion Ellen K links to, which talks about raising vowels before /ŋ/, since I don't have an /ŋ/ in this context.

    FWIW, my speech is California Bay Area.

  10. Rubrick said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    The -'in ending sounds very affected to me in Obama's case, and thus irks me; one of the reasons I like Obama is that he sounds like a President and not like a cowboy. But then, no one's ever won the White House without a certain amount of panderin'.

  11. Joe Burke said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

    I have the same pronunciation as Arthaey Angosii (ie. my contrast between "talking" and "talkin'" is entirely vocalic) and I'm from Northern Virginia. I have no idea how common this is where I'm from — but I think not very.

  12. James Kabala said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

    Mark Lieberman: How hard is the evidence in favor of the statement than "g-dropping" is really "non-g-adding?" It seems remarkable to me that such a wholesale revolution in pronunciation, if really beginning as a hypercorrection based on spelling, could (at least in reading aloud and most formal speech) conquer so thoroughly. Gerunds and particuiples (unlike "often" and even more unlike "forte") are used so frequently that it surprises me that there is not more of a mark in the historical record of a linguistic dispute of such importance. Imagine some people started to pronounce the k in knee, knife, knight, and knock – wouldn't there be writings taking note of the change? (I understand pronunciation has changed many times over the centuries – Great Vowel Shift and so forth – but this change seems to have happened at a time when spelling and pronunciation were relatively fixed.)

    On a related note, does anything quite like g-dropping/non-g-adding (i.e., a pronunciation change extremely rare in reading aloud and fairly rare in formal speech, but common in informal speech even among the intelligent and well-educated) occur in other languages, or it is a phenomenon unique to English?

    Timothy Martin: I agree, and I'm not sure I can hear the difference even now that I know of it.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

    I know someone who pronounces both the [ŋ] and the [g], a la [goiŋg], in formal speech. (He also pronounces the "t" in often. Each seems more irritating than the other.) He achieves his version of slumming by dropping an actual [g], leaving [ŋ].

    In Indonesian, some words are spelled with "ngg" indicating a [ŋg] pronunciation.

  14. Bill Walderman said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

    "People generally end up with the accents of their late childhood and early adolescent peers, so Midland and Houston were the formative influences on Bush's accent, rather than Kennebunkport and Andover."

    A friend of mine was in GWB's seventh and eighth grade class in Houston. My friend, who went to Exeter, Princeton and Harvard Business School, more or less parallel to GWB's educational track, pronounces "nuclear" "nu-cle-ar" and uses the "-in#" participial form to the extent consistent with educated American speech. I think GHB's speech is definitely faux-Bubba.

    I have another friend from rural southeastern Alabama who is a high-school but not college graduate, who makes his living as in air-conditioning/heating installation and repair, who grew up on a small farm, whose father was actually illiterate, and this friend thinks GHB sounds ignorant.

  15. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

    @James Kabala: Re: "How hard is the evidence in favor of the statement tha[t] 'g-dropping' is really 'non-g-adding?' It seems remarkable to me that such a wholesale revolution in pronunciation, if really beginning as a hypercorrection based on spelling, […]": I don't think anyone's suggesting that it began as a hypercorrection based on spelling; rather, certain forms of English merged the two endings in pronunciation, always using the 'ng' pronunciation, and this merger spread into other forms of English. The spelling followed the pronunciation, not the other way 'round, and while hypercorrection may have played a role at some point for some speakers, I don't think anyone's suggesting that it was the original impetus.

  16. James Kabala said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

    Ran: As I said above, I seem to have misunderstood the original claim (although I could have sworn I have seen other people try to date it as late as the 19th century). My apologies. I'm actually a bit more interested in the answers to my other questions.

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 3:05 am

    @James Kabala:
    I'm actually a bit more interested in the answers to my other questions.
    and
    On a related note, does anything quite like g-dropping/non-g-adding (i.e., a pronunciation change extremely rare in reading aloud and fairly rare in formal speech, but common in informal speech even among the intelligent and well-educated) occur in other languages, or it is a phenomenon unique to English?
    Short answer: style markers like this are found all over the place in all languages. Sometimes they involve specific pronunciation variants, sometimes they involve a grammatical difference (like passé simple and passé composé in French), and often they involve choice of words (like buy and purchase in English). For another pronunciation example from English, try googling the combination Labov fourth floor (without quotes) and read some of what you get.

  18. Sky Onosson said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

    Regarding the specifics of the difference between the two forms in question, I too wonder about the relationship between the vowel and the consonant. I have often felt (though without investigating it in any detail) that my own speech and many in my area (Manitoba) has the two variants quite often as [in] and [ɪn]. To my ears, [in] is just as acceptable as [iŋ] and doesn't "sound" informal or non-standard, whereas [ɪn] is definitely more informal, or in some cases would sound like an affectation around here (especially if accompanied by "y'all"s and "howdy"s.)

    I wonder if the same occurs in parts of the U.S.?

  19. James Kabala said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    Bob Ladd: I don't want to beat this issue into the ground (and this particular thread on the subject is no longer where the action is), but it seems to me that g-dropping isn't quite parallel to the other examples you give (certainly not to something "buy" vs. "purchase.") The "fourth floor" example you give probably comes the closest, since some of the clerks actually altered the pronunciation the second time. That strikes me as the hallmark of g-dropping – the way that most people drift in and out of it unconsciously.

    Compare it with, say /w/ vs. /hw/. I come from the generation that largely pronounces "wh" like /w/. Before I posted I tried to say words "white" and "whale" in the old-fashioned way as a test, and it required a genuine effort and came out sounding extremely forced and unnatural. This strikes me as very different from the way most people alternate between g-dropping and non-dropping. The exact percentage of gs dropped may change based on class or educational background, but most people, regardless of background, are inconsistent in their pronunciation.

  20. Empathetic -in’ « ESOL World News said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 11:09 am

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