"G-dropping" as "non-G-adding"

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[This is really a comment on a comment on one of our recent posts about the sociopolitics of g-dropping — I've set it up as a separate post because it's too long to fit gracefully in the comments section.]

I made the point (in responding to another comment) that "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".

James Kabala asked: "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 […] 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."

The change is amply documented in the historical record. But there was no "dispute", because this happened before the time when people argued — at least in public — about whose version of the English language was correct.

From the OED's etymology for -ing1:

suffix forming verbal derivatives, originally abstract nouns of action, but subsequently developed in various directions: […] In OE. the more usual form was -ung (inflected -unge), but -ing also was frequent, esp. in derivatives from original ja- verbs […] In early ME., -ung rapidly died out, being scarcely found after 1250, and -ing (in early ME. -inge) became the regular form.

And from the discussion of -ing2:

suffix of the present participle, and of adjs. thence derived, or so formed; an alteration of the original OE. -ende […] Already, in later OE., the ppl. -ende was often weakened to -inde, and this became the regular Southern form of the ending in Early ME. From the end of the 12th c. there was a growing tendency to confuse -inde, phonetically or scribally, with -inge; this confusion is specially noticeable in MSS. written by Anglo-Norman scribes in the 13th c. The final result was the predominance of the form -inge, and its general substitution for -inde in the 14th c. […]

Amy Vaughn's comment on another post is relevant here: "I was really interested to notice that Old Sportscaster Sarah Palin's g-dropping seems to be restricted to verbs only – so we get doin' and hittin', but fighting and training. This interests me because I come from a region of the US where dropping gs is fairly commonplace if not standard, but I can't recall whether or not it is universal to all occurrences of -ing or restricted to verbs like Palin's seems to be."

I haven't looked in detail at the videos in question, but this sounds like the traditional form of "g-dropping", where the -in' form is limited to the verbal participles, and the -ing form is retained for deverbal nouns. I don't know the geographical and social history in detail, but apparently the 14th-century merger took place in southern England, and was resisted in the north and in Scotland (though the modern forms in Scots are -an and -in, at least according to the OED's description).

A form of the older distinction was also retained throughout England by the rural "huntin' and fishin'" aristocracy. In a post a few years ago ("The Internet Pilgrim's Guide to G-dropping", 5/10/2004), I quoted a 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.'

Since this pattern is the historically older, more conservative one, it's a plausible joke to call it "non-g-adding" rather than "g-dropping" — though again, nothing is being either added or dropped except in the spelling.


  1. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    There's a 1985 dissertation on this topic by Ann Houston from Penn: Continuity and Change in English Morphology: The Variable (ING).

  2. James Kabala said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

    I think I misunderstood the original post; I didn't realize this change had taken place as far back as the 14th century.

    [(myl) The important thing is, it took place 600-700 years ago in forms of writing dominant in southern England. In the spoken language, it took place much later — and in some subgroups, never, or only partially. But the groups lacking the merger were regional or socially non-standard. As a result, the distinction has been partly re-analyzed as an index of formality etc. rather than as a difference in morphological category, leaving us in the current confused state.]

  3. James Kabala said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

    "though again, nothing is being either added or dropped except in the spelling."

    Can anyone explain this in a non-specialist way? As both I and someone else noted below, the /ŋ/ sounds to my ears like an /n/ and a /g/ merged together. I'm not sure I understand the idea that it's a completely separate sound.

  4. marie-lucie said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

    The reason that "/ŋ/ sounds … like an /n/ and a /g/ merged together" is that the (one) sound shares phonetic characteristics of both: it is nasal like /n/ and velar like /g/. But there is only one sound: compare sinning and singing or sing-in (a potential counterpart to sit-in and other forms of demonstration popular in the 60's). singing is not pronounced "sin-ging", which would be the case if there were two separate sounds.

  5. Derek said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

    "…nothing is being either added or dropped except in the spelling"

    Yes, but I'm still curious about the vowel. Is the difference in the vowel between -in' /-In/ and -ing /-iN/ phonetic or phonemic?

    [(myl) I won't answer that, but I'll point out that there are actually two areas of variation: the place of articulation of the final nasal (coronal vs. velar), and the quality of the preceding vowel (between [ɪ] and [i]). The vowel variation hasn't been studied much, for (I think) a couple of reasons: it's gradient rather than categorical, so you'd have to measure formants or something equivalent, rather than just listening and classifying; and measuring formants in heavily nasalized vowels is problematic.

    However, it's pretty clear that the most stigmatized forms have a coronal nasal with a lax [ɪ] vowel. Forms with a coronal nasal preceded by [i] are (I think) less likely to be noticed as non-standard.]

  6. Kevin Iga said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 3:42 am

    Also, compare "singer" and "finger". "Finger" has the same /ŋ/ sound, followed by a /g/ sound, while "singer" just has /ŋ/.

  7. Richard Ashdowne said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 6:51 am

    marie-lucie: "… singing is not pronounced "sin-ging", which would be the case if there were two separate sound"

    In standard English pronunciation, yes. Of course, there are some regional varieties of English in the UK (in the north of England, at least) where singing is indeed pronounced [sɪŋ.gɪŋ] by some speakers, though I don't know its sociolinguistic distribution or status within the areas in question.

    (Incidentally, I have the impression that quite a few sit-ins in the 1960s involved a fair amount of singing, but that was before my time!)

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 7:34 am

    How about the

    a-whoopin' and a-hollerin'


    I know very little about this, but I thought that historically this sort of construction derived from a reduced form of OE 'on' followed by a gerund rather than a participle. If so, wouldn't that mean that current -in forms do not necessarily result from the merger in Middle English, but may have arisen (again) by another round of -in for -ing substitution?

    Moreover, at least the British -in type speech forms known to me do not in fact have

    -in participle
    -ing gerund

    rather they have -in for both.
    There must be abundant literature on these matters; what's the story?

    [(myl) The OED sez:

    The identity of form of pr. pple. and gerund probably also assisted the process whereby, at a later date [i.e. after the 14th c.], such a construction as ‘the king went a-hunting’, formerly ‘on or an huntinge’, was shortened to ‘the king went hunting’, the last word being then taken as the participle …


  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 7:40 am

    Sorry, should read more carefully before hitting "submit" – I meant

    " … the current -in forms do not necessarily result from the dialect in question escaping the merger in Middle English …"

  10. Sili said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 8:30 am

    Fascinating that the historicall ppA suffix is indentical to the current Danish one. I didn't realise we were that reäctionary.

    (I'm trying to recall what the gerund would be in Danish. "-en", I think …)

  11. James Kabala said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 8:36 am

    I have three more questions (offered in a spirit of genuine curiosity about this fascinating issue):

    1. What about the four "thing words": "something," "nothing," "anything," and "everything?" These words (especially the first two; the last two much less often in my experience, but by no means never), sometimes have the terminal g dropped*, yet seem to stand completely apart from this whole gerund vs. participle issue. I agree with Mr. Eddyshaw that I have heard the g dropped* on gerunds as well, although certainly less often than on participles.

    2. Why has this pattern crossed the Atlantic and persisted even among many whose ethnic and cultural origins are not at all British? Other regionally distinctive English patterns seem to have disappeared into the melting pot – e.g., Cockney "h-dropping" or (if we want to talk about a REALLY conservative pattern) the use of thou and thee that persisted in parts of rural England into the days of Hardy and Lawrence, but was probably never used by any non-Quaker American after 1700 if not earlier. Why did this particular pattern survive?

    3. For me, the strange thing about g-dropping* is that few people do it 100% of the time and few people do it 0% percent of the time – as opposed to say, rhotic vs. non-rhotic accents, which seem to be fairly consistent within an idiolect. Why do you think this is?

    * I continue to use the standard phrase for ease of reference.

    [(myl) These are all excellent questions, whose answers won't fit in a comment. I'm far from the best person to answer them, but I'll give it a shot in later LL posts, or perhaps recruit someone who knows more. Meanwhile, here are some quick responses.

    1. There's variable leakage into words like wedding, though I know people who say tryin' pretty much 100% of the time, but think that weddin' is a preposterous mistake. The X-thing words are reduced by a more general process, as indicated by the fact that the outcome is sometimes e.g. [ˈsʌm.ʔm̩] — though there may be some analogical influence as well.

    2. The pattern crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific with the people who crossed those oceans.

    3. Why the pattern is consistently variable across space and time — and apparently with about the same conditioning factors — is an interesting question, not to say a complete mystery. It's the poster child for the fact that variation does not always reflect change in progress. ]

  12. marie-lucie said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    Richard Ashdowne, by "sin-ging" I meant just that, not "sing-ging" as you interpreted it. Similarly for "sin-ger" (not used). I was responding to the person who "heard" two separate sounds in the -ng.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    Derek wrote: Yes, but I'm still curious about the vowel. Is the difference in the vowel between -in' /-In/ and -ing /-iN/ phonetic or phonemic?

    I'm the one who brought this up in the previous thread, and after reading Mark Liberman's reply and thinking about it some more, I'm thinking, I suspect this varies from person to person. Because distinguishing phonemes happens in our heads. Our ears don't hear phonemes. It's our brain that turns the sounds into phonemes, and when there aren't minimal pairs, it's possible different people will analyze things differently. I may interpret (subconsiously) the vowel difference as being important, and someone else the consonant difference, when both vary together. And surrounding sounds can even influence what phoneme we interpret a sound as being.

  14. Robert F said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    There are English accents in which even in participles a voiced velar plosive [g] can be heard after the velar nasal [ŋ]. The easiest example of this I can think of is Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. (It's clearest on the last line of the song, that Plant pronounces a [g] at the end of the word 'buying').

    Of course, listening to it backwards doesn't help.

  15. mollymooly said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    I think "g dropping" can extend beynd -thing words to all unstressed final syllables /IN/: darlin' , herrin', etc. Google even shows dialect spellings such as "Washin'ton", especially in black speech; dunno how accurate those are.

  16. Ellen K. said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    @ Kevin Iga: For me, singer and finger sound the same after the first letter.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    @ Kevin Iga: For me, singer and finger sound the same after the first letter.


  18. Dave said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    I've heard "sin-ging" from New Yorkers (the same ones who say "Long Guyland"). And I've also heard something very much like "nothin" and "somethin" on occasion.

  19. parvomagnus said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

    huh…darlin' I've heard, herrin' never. I'd probably interpret it as "heron", though, so maybe I have, and just been confused.

    As for Led Zeppelin, does anyone know if Plant talks that way outside of singing? Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, that little g just excresced.

    With Washin'ton, that might more the /N/ assimilating to the /t/ than anything related to the -ing ending.

  20. Dan T. said,

    October 19, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

    There were the cereal commercials a few years ago that had a guy saying to his wife, "That's Nut 'n' Honey", which was heard as "Nothin', Honey".

  21. Martyn Cornell said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    Robert Plant was born and grew up in the Black Country in the West Midlands: I believe (though I'm prepared to be told I'm wrong) that pronouncing -ing with an exaggerated hard 'g' is not a part of Black Counbtry speech, but it IS a part of the speech of Birmingham, next door.

    For those for whom singer and finger rhyme, Wikipedia has a good explanation of why for most English speakers they don't …

  22. Virtual Linguist said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    I was born and brought up in Liverpool (NW England) and, although few other traces of the accent remain, singer and finger rhyme when I say them.

    There's still an aristocratic connection with g-dropping. I saw a headline which said "Prince William goes huntin', shootin' and textin'"

  23. Steve said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    @ Martyn Cornell

    As a (now exiled) native of that area myself, from the Black Country/Birmingham border, I can confirm that a hard 'g' is characteristic of Birmingham accents (more exaggerated in some than others); whereas Black Country accents (there are several) tend not to have it. And it's not just in that area: most Midlands accents that I've heard, going as far south (and as far rural) as Warwickshire and as far east as Nottinghamshire, seem to have the velar plosive to some extent. Mr Plant's pronunciation in the lyric in question has never struck me as anything other than normal, and not as exaggerated as you'd hear if he were singing in the sort of caricature of the Brummie accent that is often attempted by non-Midlanders.

    But this is from memory, and I will check its accuracy when I visit both (north) Birmingham and the Black Country (Dudley) at the end of next month.

  24. Bill Walderman said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    I saw a headline which said "Prince William goes huntin', shootin' and textin'"

    Shouldn't it be "Prince William goes a-huntin,' a-shootin' and a-textin'"?

    Around 1961, in my recollection (and I haven't been back since), the locals in the vicinity of Sterling, Connecticut (including Moosup and Oneco) pronounced it 'Sterlin'."

  25. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    Is there any possibility that the Middle English infinitive in -an or -en, which seems also to have been used as a verbal noun (as in modern German and Dutch), has contributed to the persistence of the "g-dropped" form?

  26. Colin John said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    As an aside to James Kabala's comment on 19th Oct, I can assure him that 'thee' and 'thou' (or more usually 'tha') are still to be heard in parts of South Yorkshire in Northern England. I lived there about 10 years ago and, though not normal, it was still common, particularly in the old mining communities.
    The classic example of this would be the phrase addressed to someone an older person thought was being too familiar:
    "Don't tha thee-tha me, youth; less'n I thee-tha thee thissen afore." (Don't address me as thee, young man, unless I've so addressed you first.)
    I've heard all the elements of that sentence, even if the whole is rather contrived.

  27. DJ said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    I'm from central Texas, where I hear (and probably say) the g in "everything" and "anything" but not so much in "something" or "nothing."

    "Anything on tv tonight?" "Nothin' worth watching."

    "Do you have everything you need?" "I think somethin's/sump'in's missing."

    If "anything" or "everything" is at the end of a sentence, it seems to me that the g may be audible but somewhat muted, almost as if it just sort of slipped in under the wire before the speaker stopped talking. I don't think I sense that in questions, but I'll have to listen more to see.

    You can see that my linguistics skills are pretty much nil, but I haven't seen the "nothin'" pronunciation here much except in the discussion of Nut 'n' Honey.

    [(myl) 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.]

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