Friday, February 26, 2010

Note on r-dropping

An anonymous commenter said he or she had learned that r-dropping had started among lower class Englishmen and then spread to the upper classes.  Since nowadays, r-dropping in America is maintained mainly by the lower class, that is an understandable conclusion.

However, it has been conclusively shown both here and in Europe that the upper classes do not adapt their speech to the lower ones. In a class-based society like England's up to the 20th century, it is inconceivable that people began to speak like the lower classes. That would be like you starting to say "youse guys" or "trow me duh ball." You might borrow an  uneducated form like, "I don't know nothin'" if you're being funny, but you wouldn't speak that way consistently.

Also, in England the lower classes in the North and some other regions were r-ful, but the upper classes dropped their r's.  In the London area, everybody was r-dropping.

As I showed in my posts, the first evidence of r-dropping is in letters and manuscripts dating from the 15th century and were written by scribes and by the lower nobility, as in The Paston Letters.  Moreover, although English writers did comment on dialects very early on, no derogatory mention is made of r-dropping that I know of.  British novelists when evoking the dialects of lower class people, do not indicate r-dropping derogatorily.

I was also asked if the Scots-Irish brought r-ful pronunciation with them.  Yes, they did. That is why, historically, the coastal South, settled by the younger sons of British aristocracy, was r-dropping, but the Appalachian regions were r-ful.  William Penn and his followers were from Northern England so that Pennsylvania became an r-ful colony, the only  one of the original 13, I believe.  Since Penn was educated, that shows that r-dropping at that time hadn't spread to the North of England, although it did later.  Subsequent migrations from r-ful British areas brought r-ful speech to the territories that became our large Midwestern and Western states.  These  were not settled by the upper classes or the educated as were the original East Coast r-less areas or Pennsylvania. 

These newer settlers established r-pronouncing in most of America.  If r-dropping Easterners moved to those territories, they  naturally began to pronounce their r's as we all talk like our peers and will change our language to fit in.  Many of you reading this have had the experience of changing your speech when you move to a new region.

Finally, a wonderful comment by Graham informed me that in rural Georgia, people pronounce her name, Danna, as "Danner." So, the intrusive r occurs outside of Eastern New England.

So then he goes, "Are you kiddin'?" I went, like, "Get lost!!"

While eating dinner with friends, suddenly M yelled at me, "Oh, you said it. You of all people!" "You said, 'go!' It's say!."  True, I was using what has become a synonym of say.  Oh, you shudder. "I would never say go if I meant say." My friend said that. So have a lot of other people, including my students.  However, in casual speech, I heard my friend use go this way, and whenever I asked students to jot down the number of times they heard this usage, not only did they find it with great frequency, but shamefacedly had to admit they do it too.  In American English, at least, it has been common for at least 50 years, maybe more.

Is it wrong?  Is it ungrammatical?  I would say it is wrong for formal speech and writing, but the very prevalence of its usage makes it correct spoken English.  At some point, as when everybody's doing it, it becomes part of the language.

As for the second question, it is grammatical.  Why? Because there are definite restrictions on when go, goes, and went can be used as synonyms for say and  said.  Interestingly, go can't be used in the perfect.  You can't say,

*"He has gone, "And then I ran."

That is ungrammatical.  You'd have to say, "He has said, "And then I ran."

You substitute go or  went for say or said when you are recounting a rapid conversation consisting of short utterances, in sequences like,


So I went, "Omigod, the tire's flat."
And he went, " I'll fix it"
And I went, "It's pouring out, dummy."
And he went, "I'm not made of sugar, honey" and we went on like that for ten minutes.

Notice also  the common phrasing, "He went on and on and on"  or "Don't go on and on about that." Everyone knows that means 'don't speak for a long time on that topic.'  There is also,  "He ran on for hours" or "to run off at the mouth."  Perhaps you can think of similar examples.

You cannot ever use go forms to mean speaking when recounting long speeches or lofty topics.  For instance, you 'd never say, "And Lincoln finally stood up and went, "Four score and seven years ago..."

It is interesting to note that  other languages use their words for motion as synonyms for speaking in much the way Americans do.

Now, how about like for say, not to be confused with the ubiquitous like used to fill pauses as someone speaks, as in "It's like, you know, not a good thing. Like, it could kill you."  I am referring to situations in which like is followed by a quote.  This is a fairly recent usage and is not used by everyone.  In fact, a teacher friend of mine told me that an African American girl told another girl, who claimed that she, too, was African American, "You can't be African American. You say 'like'."  I've heard students in the hallway often saying things like,

"And then he's like, 'Dana's a little chubby."
"He came right out and said that?"
"No, he was like...."

Checking my analysis with at least ten years' of students in classes, I found that like before reporting what someone says always means, "the following aren't the exact words, but they mean the same thing."

My favorite is all, as in "And then he's all, "Omigod, what're we goin' to do?"  This is the least common introduction to quoting speech.  It is used to indicate strong emotion on the part of the original speaker.  It is not flattering as it indicates anger or upset.