Friday 20 July 2012

Staying, or goin’?

or, perhaps, goingk?

Why do English speakers all over the world pronounce words ending in –ing sometimes as stayin’, with a final [n], and at other times as staying, with a final [ŋ] ?

Researchers have uncovered a range of factors that influence speakers to choose one of these pronunciations rather than the other. All speakers seem to be affected by the style of speech (informal speech favours stayin’) and by whether the word is a noun, like ceiling, or a verb, like going in I’m going home (verbs favour the ‘in’ pronunciation). The type of consonant that comes before –ing also affects the pronunciation: for example, a previous [n] makes the ‘in’ pronunciation less likely, so that I was stayin' is heard more often than I was runnin’. Social factors are relevant, too – on balance, male speakers the world over favour ‘in’ more than female speakers do. Now Rob Drummond has added another factor to the list by discovering that identity may also influence the pronunciation of –ing, at least for Polish learners of English living in the UK.  

Drummond recorded conversations with 40 Polish adults (aged between 18 and 40) living in Manchester, a traditionally industrial city in North West England. All the Polish speakers had grown up in Poland and all had acquired at least a basic proficiency in English before coming to live in the Manchester area. Drummond analysed the pronunciation of 1677 –ing forms from these conversations – an average of about 42 from each speaker.

The standard ‘ing’ pronunciation was by far the most frequent variant, with seven of the 40 speakers using only this form. Other speakers, though, varied between saying ‘in’ and ‘ing’, just as native speakers of English do. Even more interestingly, the pronunciation of these sixteen speakers was influenced by the same linguistic factors that affect the English of native speakers. So, the Poles favoured the ‘in’ pronunciation when –ing was part of a verb, and they favoured the ‘ing’ pronunciation in words like running or sitting, where there was a previous ‘n’ or similar type of consonant. This is an interesting finding since it shows that as learners become more proficient in English, they acquire the same linguistic patterns of variation as native speakers.

Unlike speakers in previous studies, though, the female Polish speakers used the ‘in’ pronunciation more often than ‘ing’, overall. Drummond suggests that this is due to the type of work that the male and female speakers tended to do, which resulted in differing amounts of contact with native English speakers. For example, one Polish speaker with a high use of the ‘in’ pronunciation worked in a café in Manchester, while another was a manager in a department store. Both these speakers were female. By contrast, a person working as a security guard had a low frequency of the ‘in’ pronunciation, as did a person working in a warehouse. Both these speakers were male, and neither of them came into contact with many English people during the course of their working day.

The most surprising result, though, was that the future plans of the Polish people also affected their pronunciation. Those speakers who were planning to return to Poland in the near future were less likely to say ‘in’ and more likely to say ‘ing’. They were also more likely to use a pronunciation not used by native speakers in Manchester, ‘ingk’ – where words like going or staying are pronounced  ‘goingk’ and ‘stayingk’. This corresponds to the way that ‘ing’ would be pronounced in Polish. In the Polish language, in fact, ‘ng’ only ever occurs before a ‘k’ or a ‘g’.

Drummond suggests that these patterns of variation could be seen as reflecting the speaker’s identity. Of course, there are many different aspects to a person’s identity, and future plans can signal only one part of an identity. Nevertheless, a future plan that involves deciding to stay in a country automatically gives an individual the label (and, presumably, identity) of ‘immigrant’. With this in mind, Drummond argues that the use of one pronunciation rather than another, whether conscious or unconscious (and most likely a combination of the two) can signal allegiance to one or other culture.

Drummond, Rob (2012) Aspects of identity in a second language: ING variation in the speech of Polish migrants living in Manchester, UK.  Language Variation and Change 24: 107-133.


This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire


  1. I believe I've observed many young people in southern California pronouncing "ing" as "een". There might be a Mexican influence in it, maybe not. In any case, I'm guessing that it's a deliberate "correction" from the more casual "in'", but without awareness of the full "ng" sound.

  2. Jenny Cheshire22 July 2012 at 22:21

    If there's a Mexican influence, could this be like the Polish "ingk" pronunciation, then, showing the influence of a person's other language? There is no vowel corresponding to the English short 'i' in Spanish, after all.

    1. You're guessing that the "i" in "in'" is being heard as an English short "i", and replaced by a Spanish "i"?

      The trouble with that is that the way "ing" us usually pronounced casually among North Americans, there's really no "i" of any kind there. It's almost a glottal stop sometimes, but not quite. No real vowel is perceptible.

  3. Interesting comment! Some of us have been looking at UK and US differences in this variable but I'm not sure that any studies have looked at the quality of the vowel - any thoughts anyone?


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