Monday, February 20, 2006

Droppin' Affectations

In honor of President's Day, I'll do a little post about someone who, though not a former president, nevertheless lived in the White House, and who just may become president, which I wouldn't mind at all.

You don't need to believe in any vast right-wing conspiracy to think that Hillary Clinton receives an unfair amount of scrutiny and negative attention. (In the spirit of bipartisanship, I will point out that Mark Liberman at Language Log makes an excellent case that the attention drawn to George W. Bush's verbal slips is unfair). One recent example of this stems from a speech she made on Martin Luther King's Birthday just down the road from me at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, in which she made the following remark:
The House of Representatives has been run... like a plantation, and you know what I'm talkin' about.
Perhaps this was not the wisest simile for her to use, and she has come under fire for it. But a significant amount of the criticism focuses on her so-calles "g-dropping" in the word 'talkin''. Here's what Mark Goldblatt, author of Africa Speaks, a "satire of black urban culture," wrote recently in the National Review:

There should be a name for this linguistic tic, perhaps Sudden Melanin Syndrome. It's the habit of white-guilt besotted liberals of adopting the mannerisms of Ebonics in a desperate attempt to indicate their solidarity with black listeners. Naturally it’s insultingly patronizing and what it actually indicates is someone who's not comfortable in her own skin, who unconsciously conforms her very being to whatever she imagines will ingratiate her with her audience. I doubt you'll ever hear Hillary dropping a "g" at a lily white Wellesley College reunion. Or at a lily white Chappaqua bake sale. Or at a lily white pro-choice rally.

Yes, I know, that's the second time I've cited a National Review article in as many weeks. Don't get the wrong idea; it just happens to be a good source of laymen's metalinguistic observations. Anyways, what's interesting to me is that Goldblatt considers 'g-dropping' a 'mannerism of Ebonics." It ain't. (Nor is 'ain't,' for that matter.) That is, though 'g-dropping' is typical of African American Vernacular English, it is much more widespread than that. Others label it 'Southern,' and it is indeed found in Southern dialects. Wikipedia says that
It is currently a feature of colloquial and non-standard speech of all regions, and stereotypically of Cockney, Southern American English and African American Vernacular English. Historically, it has also been used by members of the educated upper-class, as reflected by the phrase huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’.
But this still doesn't give the full geographic range, which I feel covers much of United States. I can attest firsthand that 'g-dropping' is found in the Chicago metropolitan area (known to locals as Chicagoland) from which Clinton hails, because I'm a Chicagoan and I drop my g's. Or rather, my present participles and gerunds have the sound /n/, not /ŋ/. It's a perfectly natural part of my speech, which comes out more when I'm speaking informally (not surprising). Given how pronounced Clinton's regional pronunciation is, so to speak, I can only assume that she was showing her roots at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. So ultimately Clinton is not, contra Goldblatt, affecting anything. In fact, she is dropping an affectation.

Speaking about present participles, here's a funny ad for Berlitz language schools, which, if you haven't seen you should. See. It. Thanks go to Sophie for showing it to me. Ten bonus points go to anyone who can explain why this is actually very clever, and not merely a cheap jab at accents.


Queenie said...

hi again ben, just putting in my dos centavos when i should be writing my dissertation...

totally true. "g-dropping" is not cornered by aave speakers. there are way too many sociolinguistic studies attesting to variation in (ing) usage among whites to claim otherwise. hillary can't be criticized for style-shifting (using more or less of one variant depending on context), 'cause we all do it, and it's part of being a native speaker of a language.

we should check out hillary's (ing)s when speaking to an audience of working-class whites. if she "g-drops" there, do we still resort to "sudden melanin syndrome" as an explanation? (my guess is no.) to conclude: possibly an attempt at solidariy, but with what, i have no idea.

Ben said...

Dos centavos indeed. Thanks for reminding me about style-shifting and accommodation. I meant to mention it and forgot.

I think you're absolutely right - it's an attempt at solidarity. I think "g-dropping" is mostly a marker of colloquialism, so perhaps she was flaunting her ability to switch registers, which is good rhetoric in my book. Nothin' like a little marked speech to make a speech more marked.