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.]