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.
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.