Verbal Energy

Obama on makin' it in manufacturin'

The president's diction can shift as he moves from one role to another. That's OK – but just don't say he's dropping his 'g's.'

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    In this May 1 file photo, President Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington.
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The first seven days in May were described by news analysts as one of President Obama's best weeks since he moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On Sunday night, he reported to the American people on the death of Osama bin Laden: "Justice has been done." By the end of the week, he had good job-creation figures to trumpet and a field trip to a high-tech auto-parts plant in Kokomo, Ind.

But it took only a couple of words from the president to reflect in his speech the difference between roles as he shifted from commander in chief to national salesman in chief: "buyin' " and "makin.' "

The comment that caught my ear was, "America's economy is always going to rely on outstanding manufacturing – where we make stuff, where we're not just buyin' stuff overseas, but we're makin' stuff here and we're selling it to somebody else." The National Public Radio transcript I've just looked up included the standard spelling of these two participles, but his pronunciation was clearly more informal.

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Sunday night, he was all serious – as befit the occasion, addressing the nation from the East Room of the White House. We got just about perfect diction, and even a subjunctive ("It is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight").

In Kokomo, he was much folksier – the genial salesman trying to hook the American people on the idea that they need, and can have, a robust manufacturing sector. Let's be clear, though: He was not dropping his g's. Rather, he was substituting an "n" sound for a velar nasal. This is the phoneticians' fancy term for the final consonant of sing. It's generally represented with two letters, "ng," but it's really a single sound, and it's not a "g."

Mark Liberman of the blog Language Log pointed out a few years ago that the "dropped" g is heard only in certain kinds of words – notably the "inflectional suffix," as in the participles above. Nobody "drops a 'g' " at the end of a word like boomerang, he points out. And he goes on to say that speakers of some dialects distinguish between "ing" words that get the "in' " treatment and others that don't.

Our modern-day "ing," according to Mr. Liberman, is the result of a sort of merger some centuries back. Participles used to end in "inde" or "ende." This will make sense to speakers of German and to opera fans who remember that Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" is "der Fliegende Holländer" in the German original. There was also an ancient "ung" prefix used to make verbs into nouns, such as "wedding" or "building."

A couple hundred years ago, the two particles were melded together, and we have "ing" performing both functions: signaling participles and forming nouns from verbs. Liberman said, though, "Some g-dropping speakers cleanly maintain the old distinction – for my wife, who is from Texas, tryin' or readin' are normal, but weddin' or buildin' are completely wrong."

The idea that a linguistic distinction dating back to medieval England is being maintained in Texas is, well, interesting. But I'll yield to Liberman.

Meanwhile, plenty of people wonder where the president "got that accent" – whatever accent they think it is. One online forum included this explanation: "It's actually his Indonesian twang – you know how those dudes from Jakarta sound like they're from East Texas.... Lots of Hawaiians have it, too. You know, 'Hang 10, pardner.' "

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