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.