Southerners and Gs
Surprisin’ twists in the history of English pronunciation.


Compare and contrast Rudyard Kipling (not, alas, Kiplin’), who in 1906 makes his dropped G explicit:

Marriage, birth or buryin’,
News across the seas,
All you’re sad or merry in,
You must tell the Bees.

With Jonathan Swift, who in 1699 does not:

But Weston has a new-cast gown
On Sundays to be fine in,
And, if she can but win a crown,
Twill just new-dye the lining.

It is perhaps something of a mistake to categorize the habit as dropping Gs, when, in truth, certain classes of people added them to a language previously devoid. If one can gain prestige from historically faithful pronunciation, then it belongs to Southerners.

That faithful pronunciation is not limited to the letter G. At the time of the Revolutionary War, American and British accents were somewhat similar, though informed by the usual geographical variations. Contrary to popular belief, colonial Americans did not speak with British accents of which the passage of time slowly has deprived them. Instead, the two accents diverged, with most of the changes being made on the British side — and somewhat deliberately, to boot.

But why is the Southern accent different? Simplistically: From 1717 up to the eve of the War of Independence, Scots-Irish from the northern and western parts of Britain moved to America, helping to populate the South. Ultimately, most of these immigrants followed the rivers, setting up home along their paths. As the University of Pennsylvania’s John Fought has argued, the consequence of this was that the inland South was filled by immigrants who extended their manner of speaking “beyond the Mississippi to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and beyond . . . taking Inland Southern down the major rivers.” As they moved away from the coasts, the accents and modes of speech that these immigrants brought with them were incubated and preserved in the new country.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Britain, Rs were going out of fashion, softening almost to the vanishing point in words like “Lord” and, for that matter, “word,” and Gs were coming in, especially among the upper classes and those who aspired to their ways. During the 19th century, British English changed dramatically, leading eventually to the quasi-codification of the Received Pronunciation that is still the calling card of the elites. Slowly but surely, the new way of speaking spread through the old country, and then to a lesser extent across the Atlantic. To varying degrees, in the cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and in a few other parts of the upper East Coast — plus a few snobbish Southern outliers such as Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah — American accents were influenced by these British changes. But outside of these areas, distance inured most from being affected, and they kept their older pronunciations, including the silent G.

With growing Southern and Western populations, Southern and Western accents are on the rise. In 1900, 61 percent of the American people lived in the Northeast and upper Midwest; in 2000, that was down to just 38 percent. One potential consequence of this trend is that you’ll hear fewer Gs. That being so, the political class had better get practicin’.

 Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.


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