Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Amazin' Missin' G

In one of his recent attack on Romney and Ryan, Vice Preznit Joe Biden made it a point to drop his "G"s in his speech in North Carolina, even though droppin' Gs at the end of words is not a common practice in the middle class (and certainly not the upper class) in Delaware, his home state.

Commentors have noted in the past how politicians not from southern states, including Hillary Clinton (Connecticut), Barack Obama (Hawaii??, by way of Indonesia and Chicago) have also used the vernacular dropped G when trying to appear "folksy".

According to this article by Charles Cooke at the National Review, they may be more correct than they imagine, and that the actual pronuciation of common English at the time the United States was settled was without the pronounced G:

Southerners and Gs
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.
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.
In fact, the language that Shakespeare wrote and spoke in, probably sounded a lot like the Scots-Irish  derived Appalachian accent of today:
The British Library has completed a new recording of 75 minutes of The Bard's most famous scenes, speeches and sonnets, all performed in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare's time.

That accent sounds a little more Edinburgh — and sometimes even more Appalachia — than you might expect. Actor Ben Crystal, director of the new recordings, joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about the effort to perform Shakespeare's works authentically.

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