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What Is the Bag-Beg Merger?

Do 'bag' and 'beg' sound the same to you? It could be a sign that you're from the Pacific Northwest or western Canada.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #628
A paper bag to illustrate the concept of the bag-beg merger

A couple of weeks ago, I had a segment about the difference between the words “aggravate” and “irritate.” The point was that traditionally, “aggravate” means to make something worse, whereas something that irritates you can be new. It’s not a widely enforced rule. But afterward I got comment after comment from people who heard me saying “eggravate”—like scrambled eggs—instead of “aggravate” with an A. And a couple of especially attentive listeners noticed that I do the same thing when I’m telling you about Dragonfly Editorial, the company run by one of my frequent guest writers, Samantha Enslen. Many people hear me say “Dregonfly” with an E instead of “Dragonfly” with an A. 

I was completely unaware that I do this. If I think about it hard, I can see how maybe I say those words with an E-sound, but it’s hard for me to hear the difference.

It took me a while to figure out if this is a common dialect thing or just me because I was searching for “egg” and “agg,” but eventually I discovered that it’s called the “bag-beg merger” maybe because those are the words for which the difference jumps out most at people. 

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Other Mergers: Pin-Pen

Remember the pin-pen merger we talked about a few months ago? It’s when people say the word “pen” like “pin,” as in “Hand me that pin,” instead of “Hand me that pen,” and it’s common in dialects of the southern United States. Well, the bag-beg merger is similar in that people say, “Hand me that beg,” instead of “Hand me that bag,” but it’s most common in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and in western Canada. I grew up near Seattle, so it makes sense that I have this dialect marker, and as you can probably tell from my pronunciations here, I have no trouble differentiating between “pin” and “pen,” but I struggle to differentiate between “bag” and “beg.”

Before G: The Bag-Beg Merger

What I found especially interesting is that it seems to only happen before the consonant G. Some of you may have noticed that pattern—“aggravate,” “dragonfly,” and “bag”—they all have an A before a G.

I can’t tell you why the bag-beg merger came to be, but I can tell you that you weren’t imaging that I pronounce “aggravate” and “dragonfly” in a way that is different from how you pronounce them, and that it’a real, known linguistic phenomenon.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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