AIN’T.

Moira Breen at inappropriate response writes:

I know that children, when they are beginning to master spoken language, speak, quite rationally, according to the logic of grammar, not “correctly”. I was charmed at my daughter’s constant use, when she began to speak, of the construction “amn’t I?”. And I had to wonder why English speakers do not say “amn’t I”. People tend, if they go near that interrogative construction at all, to say “aren’t I”, which makes no sense at all. “I are”? Feh. (Does “ain’t” fit in here somewhere?)

Ain’t is indeed central to the first-person-singular mess, and I found a nice online explanation by Dr. Language (Robert Beard). After giving a list of other forms (you aren’t, s/he isn’t, &c), he says:

Notice that we have an imperfect paradigm: the negative contraction for “am not” seems to be missing. All the pronoun forms correlate to a positive form and a negative (contracted) form of the verb “to be”—all except one; there is no contractable form for “am not”. Why not? The contraction of are+not is “aren’t”. The contraction of is+not is “isn’t”. Why isn’t the contraction of am+not “amn’t?”
In fact, in a wide swath of English dialects, it is. This word is common in Scotland and Ireland: “I amn’t sure what he said” and “I am going, amn’t I” are common in those variants of English. English doesn’t like two nasal consonants like “m” and “n” together, however, and in most dialects they merged into “an’t”, the spelling of which eventually evolved into “ain’t”. “Ain’t” then acquired the reputation of a “four-letter” word it has had to endure over the course of the last century. (Hmm. Actually, it has something in common with four-letter words, doesn’t it?)
These rather pertinent facts of the English language were overlooked by the prescriptive grammarians who have all these years attempted to totally obliterate (“amn’t” and) “ain’t” from the English vocabulary. “Never, never, never under any circumstances say ‘ain’t’” has been drummed in our heads since kindergarten. Sorry, teachers and diligent mommies, but this very simple rule is linguistically wrong. The rule that should have been drilled into the heads of English-speakers all these years is this:
Only use “ain’t” with “I”
It is true that we should not say, “you ain’t”, “they ain’t”, or “she ain’t” but we should say, without a scintilla of shame, “ain’t I?” rather than “aren’t I”. “Aren’t I” is just as ungrammatical as “I aren’t” where “ungrammatical” means that it violates the rules, the speaking conventions, of the English language.

I’m not sure I can go along with his proposed rule, but it’s certainly better than the current blanket prohibition. (Other Dr. Language colums here.)
Incidentally, I distinctly remember saying “amn’t” as a child, but I don’t remember when or why I stopped. The pressures of “proper English” are insidious.

Comments

  1. I have heard “amn’t I” as the tag part of a tag question asked me by a first grader in the urban school where I work. I was so transfixed by the utterance that I forgot what he was asking me.

  2. There ought to be a name for that phenomenon — getting dumped out of a conversation because of sudden linguistic satori.
    I’m glad my husband and I aren’t the only people it happens to.

  3. Don’t forget the “Mummerset” expression ‘bain’t'(=be not). Googling around I found this example from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure: “‘Well, I bain’t set against marrying as your great-aunt was,’ said the widow.” I’m sure I’ve seen the interrogative ‘bain’t I?’, probably in a Victorian Punch cartoon where it was obligatory for the ‘yokels’ to talk like that.

  4. I believe there might be another factor in the stigmatization of the variant pronounced ain’t, which belongs to a set that rhymes (or used to) for some speakers (including some kin of mine): can’t, aunt, and haunt. Ahn’t, cahn’t, auhnt, and hauhnt(ed) aren’t stigmatized in the same way that ain’t, cain’t, aint (Sally), and haint(ed) are, nor are aen’t, caen’t, aunt (Sally), though haent(ed house) is.
    It’s easy to see how “ahn’t I” got spelled “aren’t I”, and how “amn’t I” would be pronounced “an’t I”, but the pronounciation “ain’t I” remains beyond the pale regardless of how well it fits into the paradigm. I remember consciously correcting my childhood pronounciation from cain’t to caen’t, although I never felt the need to correct my ahnt (Sally) to aent (Sally), and my haunt never rhymed with anything but taunt.

  5. Does anyone know how “ain’t” got banned from polite speech in the first place?

  6. I don’t think so; that’s one of the Great Mysteries.

  7. scottish band mogwai have a track called “Moses, I Amn’t”

  8. A fairly obscure R&B singer back in the 60s, whose name escapes me, had a hit of sorts with the infamously titled “Is You Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”

  9. That was no “fairly obscure R&B singer back in the 60s,” that was the great, the inimitable, the one and only Louis Jordan, back in 1944! And it sold over a million (back when that meant something), so it can hardly be considered obscure. Furthermore, you’ve left out a crucial part of the rich gumbo of verb forms that is the title; it’s “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” (Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.)

  10. I still say “amn’t I” on occasion, but then I’m shameless, amn’t I?

  11. Sung by Louis Jordan, SONG by B.B. King!

  12. suz: If you’ll go to the Jordan link in my previous comment, you’ll see the credit (Louis Jordan/Bill Austin). BB sang the song much later, as did many others. Don’t try to fool the Perfesser!

  13. “Amn’t” is memorably used in Ulysses, in the Ballad of Joking Jesus, attributed by Joyce to his character Buck Mulligan, and actually written by Buck’s real-world counterpart, Oliver St. John Gogarty:
    If anyone thinks that I amn’t divine
    He’ll get no free drinks when I’m making the wine
    But have to drink water and wish it were plain
    That I make when the wine becomes water again.

  14. A great citation, and for those who are unaware: St. John is pronounced SIN-jun when it’s part of a British name (at least traditionally; I gather a lot of the old irregular pronunciations have gotten regularized, probably thanks to that evil American influence).

  15. LH: munch, munch extra large piece of humble pie! (And love this site, btw.)

  16. I believe Joel above is essentially correct, though the confusing phonetics leads me to suspect Joel is American.
    In my dialect ‘can’ [kæn] makes negative ‘can’t’ [kA:nt], so logically we might expect ‘am’ [æm] to make negative [A:nt], spelt ‘an’t’ or ‘amn’t’. This if it existed would be pronounced exactly the same as the negative [A:nt] from ‘are’ [A:].
    But oddly, the 1.sg. [A:nt] form has limited distribution. ‘You are not’ can be contracted as either ‘You’re not’ or ‘you aren’t', but ‘I am not’ can only become ‘I’m not’. There isn’t an available contraction ‘I amn’t’. Except in the inverted order used in questions: ‘amn’t I?’.
    Phonetically it’s fine, in non-rhotic accents. The two oddities are… three oddities, there are three oddities…
    (i) Why hasn’t the spelling ‘an’t’ or ‘amn’t’ survived for the 1.sg. [A:nt]?
    (ii) Why do Americans also use ‘aren’t’ when it doesn’t work phonetically neatly for them?
    (iii) Where do the irregular contracted forms [ent], [eInt], [en?] etc. come from, or are they as old as the Great Vowel Shift and come from [a:nt] > [E:nt] > [e:nt] > [eInt]?

  17. degustibus says:

    I had a girlfriend in college who used amn’t I — I thought it was hilarious, an affectation. She said she picked it up from relatives in Canada…

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