Monday, 11 March 2013

Are you listenin'? The phenomenon of 'G-dropping' in English

G-dropping is a popular name for the substitution of the 'ng' sound (represented as /ŋ/ in IPA) for the 'n' sound (represented as /n/) at the end of a word. The multifunctional -ing verb ending is subject to G-dropping, most commonly when it's being used as a present participle, or as part of the present progressive verb form.

Below are some well-known examples of G-droppin':

- Sittin' on the dock of the bay

- What are you waitin' for?

- Livin' on a prayer

- I've got a bad case of lovin' you

You'll also find G-dropping in gerunds (verbal nouns):

- Huntin', shootin' and fishin'

Notably in the above example, G-dropping was used by the educated upper class, so it is by no means restricted to the lower class.

Actually, G-dropping is a misnomer because no sound is actually dropped. The velar nasal (the last sound in the word 'sung') is replaced by the alveolar nasal (the last sound in the word 'sun'). The name 'G-dropping' derives from the replacement, in writing, of the sound written <ng> with the sound normally written <n>. Although a letter is lost, the sound is replaced. For the sake of simplicity, though, I will continue to call the phenomenon G-dropping in this article.

G-dropping is a very old substitution which derives from the merger of what were once two different morphemes in Old English: the present participle -ende and the gerund -inge. The orthography (writing) of the merged form, -ing, reflects a derivation from the Old English gerund, but the /ɪn/ pronunciation is a legacy from the present participle. 

G-dropping is currently a feature of colloquial and non-standard speech of all regions. Historically, it has also been used by members of the educated upper-class, as reflected by the phrase huntin', fishin' and shootin'. That this pronunciation was once regarded as standard can also be seen from old rhymes, as for example, in this couplet from John Gay's 1732 pastoral, Acis and Galatea, set to music by Handel:

Shepherd, what art thou pursuing,
Heedless running to thy ruin?

In order for this couplet to rhyme, pursuing must have been pronounced pursuin'. This would sound very odd in an opera today, and would most likely only be used for comic effect.

G-dropping is not an example of lazy pronunciation; you cannot simply replace every word final -ng with -n. If you did, you would sound very odd. For example, G-dropping is never found in imperative or infinitive verb forms. These examples of G-dropping do not sound natural:

*Sin'! (Sing!)
*Remember to brin' your charger (Remember to bring your charger)
*I'll rin' you tonight (I'll ring you tonight)

When the word is a noun, G-dropping is possible if the noun ending in -ng was derived from a participle or a gerund, though it is much rarer than G-dropping at the end of participles:

I've been in farmin' for thirty years now. 

I don't think you can G-drop nouns like 'gathering' (as in: a gathering of people) or 'hanging' (a public hanging). It sounds odd to my ears, at least.

If the noun ending in -ng was not derived from a participle, G-dropping is impossible:

*It was in the sprin' (It was in the spring)

Likewise, G-dropping is permitted in adjectives that are transparently derived from participles. Think of the slang words bangin(g) and mingin(g), or the phrase 'dirty rotten pig-stealin(g) great grandfather' (that quote is from the book Holes, in case you were wonderin'). But G-dropping is definitely not allowed in adjectives that aren't clearly derived from participles:

*A stron' man (A strong man)

There's also no G-dropping in adverbs or prepositions:

*All alon' the watchtower (All along the watchtower)

Clearly, G-dropping is not a scattergun attempt to make words shorter, nor is it a lazy way of speaking. It is a very persistent preservation of the Old English -ende present participle which, although now restricted to colloquial pronunciation, was once prevalent even in opera and poetry.

5 comments:

  1. I find this incredibly irritatin for some reason. I would be interested to know if it is seen as an affected manner of speaking - maybe as upper-social figures trying to broaden their appeal? I first noticed it a few years ago listening to a Tory MP on Pienaar's Politics. Since this is a feature of working class speech in some regional dialects (e.g. Cockney), this may be one hypothesis.

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  2. I find this incredibly irritatin for some reason. I would be interested to know if it is seen as an affected manner of speaking - maybe as upper-social figures trying to broaden their appeal? I first noticed it a few years ago listening to a Tory MP on Pienaar's Politics. Since this is a feature of working class speech in some regional dialects (e.g. Cockney), this may be one hypothesis.

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  3. I love that "g-dropping" is actually historically accurate and people who think it is lazy are wrong!

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  4. Er... yes you can drop g in "a gatherin' of people". I'm in a meetin'. You are right that it is more common to drop the g where it is a gerund or participle. I would argue pronouncing the g in words like "doing" is a pronunciation mistake, derived as a reading pronunciation when the uneducated started to read in the 19th century. For example, would it be correct to pronounce "said" as it is written? Words like "often" now have a reading pronunciation in many English people's English (recte: of'en).

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  5. Ive noticed g-dropping is becoming really common especially in very educated middle class people. I would say it nearly always those under the age of about 40 who are guilty of it.

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