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


Charles C. W. Cooke

Americans are not infatuated with class in the manner that the British are, but accents remain consequential nonetheless. How else to explain the Amazing Disappearing G, a trick of pronunciation that, whereabouts permitting, politicians on the campaign trail and beyond are keen to perform? Vice President Joe Biden, during his ignoble allegation that the Republican party has a secret plan to put black Americans “back in chains,” avoided the participial G as if he were fatally allergic.

Were we in the Southern states, Biden’s trick would instead be called the Amazin’ Disappearin’ G, and this has not been lost on any of this year’s presidential contenders. While Mitt Romney has much less of a tendency toward dropping his Gs than does Barack Obama, the Republican candidate is not wholly innocent: Touring the South during the primaries, Romney wished supporters a “fine Alabama good mornin’” and took to asking, rhetorically, “Ain’t that somethin’?” This while pretending to like grits, no less.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, why politicians do this is self-evident. But more interesting is why Southerners do it in the first place. The answer is surprising: Actually, Southerners are truer to “original” English voicing than are their G-happy Northern counterparts. Chalk one up there for Biden. Historically, writes Barbara Strang in A History of English, “the more ‘correct’ pronunciation [i.e., the pronunciation of Gs], as it was considered, was in reality an innovation, based upon the spelling.” That is to say that Southerners who are speakin’ instead of speaking are “correct” — insofar as anybody can be right or wrong linguistically — and, by contrast, educated types who disparage the loss of the G are “incorrect” to do so, their admonishments serving only as invitations further to change the very language that they are attempting to preserve. 

In Britain and in certain parts of America today, dropping Gs is perceived as a negative class or educational indicator. This is especially true in England, in which country a “cockney” or “estuary” accent is — albeit unfairly — redolent of ignorance, lack of social grace, and naivety. This association is a modern trend. Until the mid-20th century, the phenomenon was as strongly associated with the upper classes as those at the bottom of the social ladder. A favorite aristocratic pastime? “Huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’.”

This being the case, it would presumably horrify many to learn that, per the esteemed linguist Henry Wyld, as late as 1936, G-less pronunciation was “still widespread among large classes of the best speakers, no less than among the worst.” Among these “best speakers” was King Edward VIII, who was recorded asking a friend wearing a particularly loud tweed to Royal Ascot, “Mornin’, Harris. Goin’ rattin’?” Much research bears Wyld out, showing as it does that for most of the time in which modern English has been spoken, the G has remained predominantly orthographic. Even Bertie Wooster, P. G. Wodehouse’s dandyish blueblood, was prone to dropping his Gs — at least until his habit was kicked in 1934’s Thank You, Jeeves.