At the end of July, Digby Jones, former Director-General of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), tweeted about the pronunciation of Alex Scott, one of the BBC’s main studio presenters during the Tokyo Olympics. He complained about her “very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of a word”, such as “fencin, rowin, boxin, kayakin, weightliftin & swimmin.” In a follow up tweet, he made a similar complaint about another broadcaster Beth Rigby (Sky News political editor) and politician Priti Patel (Home Secretary).
The popular name for the pronunciation feature that Jones complained about is dropping your g’s. This folk label seems to have triggered considerable misunderstanding of what is actually going on in this case. Many of the responses to Jones’s comments reflect this misunderstanding. Among the responses, there are many statements such as:
- omitting a final “g” is not a regional accent, but just laziness, sloppiness, poor enunciation or just incorrect English. Some people say they find the use of a regional accent acceptable, but do not find ‘poor enunciation’ acceptable.
- dropping your g’s makes it more difficult to understand you.
I would like to unpack some linguistic features of this debate:
- what is dropping your g’s?
- is dropping your g’s an error?
- should people learn not to drop their g’s?
- does dropping your g’s make it harder for people to understand you?
What is dropping your g’s?
In English, the present participle or gerund ends in the inflection spelled -ing. The two letters at the end of this spelling (ng) do not reflect a sequence of two sounds. They are a digraph that spells a single consonant. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) writes this consonant as ŋ. So the IPA would write this inflection as -iŋ, with just two characters.
Phonetically, the letter written as n in the IPA represents an alveolar nasal consonant. Alveolar means the tongue interrupts the airflow by making contact at the front of the mouth against the alveolar ridge just behind the upper teeth. In contrast, ŋ is a velar nasal. Velar means the tongue interrupts the airflow by making contact at the back of the mouth with the soft palate (velum).
Old English in the 14th century did not treat [ŋ] as a separate phoneme, but only as an allophone of [n] occurring before velar consonants (g and k). Producing that allophone is a natural and common outcome in many languages because [ŋ] is produced with the tongue close to where it needs to be for the following velar consonant.
Phonemes and allophones
A phoneme is a set of sounds that are similar and enter into contrasts with other sets of sounds. An allophone is a member of that set used in a particular environment.
By convention, phonemes are transcribed between /slanted lines/ and allophones are transcribed between [square brackets]. To avoid ambiguity, the written form of a word can be placed between <angled brackets>.
For example, in English, /p/ contrasts with /b/ in pairs of words such as pat and bat. So both /p/ and /b/ are phonemes in English. Two different allophones of /p/ occur in pat and spit. Those allophones could be transcribed as [ph] and [p] respectively. This transcription would show that aspiration occurs only in the allophone used in pat.
Donka Minkova (2014) reports that the cluster [-ŋg] began to be simplified, starting in the north of England, with this change then spreading gradually south in the fifteenth century. Ultimately, the prestige form of British English (known as Received Pronounciation or RP) dropped the final g totally in most contexts, leaving just [-ŋ].
For more about RP, please see Received Pronunciation – The British Library (bl.uk)
In some other dialects and accents, the simplification of [-ŋg] resulted in [-n], with loss of the velar component of the nasal. Minkova reports that RP speakers vacillated from some time between [-ŋ] and [-n]. For example, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Tennyson all rhymed <-in> with <-ing>; RP speakers did not move uniformly to [-ŋ] until the late nineteenth century.
Wells (1982) reports the pronunciation of <-ng> as [-in] as occurring in most of the western half of the midlands and middle north, including Birmingham, Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent, Manchester and Liverpool and in one part of Yorkshire: Sheffield. In those areas. people used this pronunciation throughout the social scale, apart from a small proportion of people who speak in an RP accent. Wells wrote these comments 40 years ago; I haven’t looked for more recent analysis.
RP did not drop the final [-g] from the cluster [-ŋg] in all contexts. It dropped final [-g] mainly from the end of morphemes. For example, it dropped [-g] from the suffix <-ing>, from the end of words such as sing and king and from words derived from those words, such as singer. However, it retained [-g] within words such as angry. Note that RP dropped the final [-g] from singer (a word derived from the word sing) but retained it in finger (where the [-g-] occurs inside the word).
Is dropping your g’s an error?
If you want to use RP correctly, you need to pronounce the [-ing] inflection as [-iŋ]. Some people may be trying to use RP and not succeeding. If so, that is an error.
On the other hand, if people are speaking in their natural accent and not trying to speak RP, that is not an error.
The misleading phrase Dropping your g’s has probably perpetuated and strengthened the idea that this particular pronunciation is lazy and blameworthy. In fact, this pronunciation doesn’t involve dropping anything. It involves only replacing one phoneme /ŋ/ with another /n/. Ironically, RP itself did the dropping when it dropped [-g] to convert [-iŋg] into [-iŋ].
Should people learn not to drop their g’s?
Some commentators think that people whose natural accent is not RP should learn RP and should, in some or all settings use RP. Learning to use RP would, among other things involve learning not to drop g’s. Those commentators tend to hold one or both of the following views:
- RP is intrinsically superior to other accents, or is a sign of intelligence or education.
- learning to use RP would enhance someone’s job prospects or other life chances.
Some commentators think RP is intrinsically superior to other accents, or is a sign of intelligence or of a good education. Some even seem to think that people have some sort of moral failing if they don’t learn to use RP. That position is nonsense. There is nothing morally good or morally bad about learning RP or about not learning it. And RP is not intrinsically superior to other accents.
Although RP is not intrinsically superior, using RP may convey some social advantages. A few decades ago, being able to use RP was an advantage or even a pre-requisite for entry into some professions. When that was the case, using RP could improve some people’s life chances and so adopting RP could have been in their interest. However, the former supremacy of RP has now waned. The advantages of using RP are now much less, though perhaps not completely gone.
Dropping your g’s: harder to understand?
Some commentators on the tweet by Digby Jones claim that dropping your g’s makes speech more difficult to understand. That claims seems ridiculous to me. Although some non-standard pronunciations may be difficult to understand, I don’t believe for a moment that anyone would find any difficulty in understanding the ending <-ing> if it is pronounced as [-in] rather than as [-iŋ].
A Historical Phonology of English, Donka Minkova, 2014
Accents of English 2: The British Isles , J C Wells, 1982