or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 22, 2005

Ain't That a Shame

I could really get some mileage out of "ain't". I want it back, but I also want a few million dollars in small unmarked bills, and I can't have that, either.

"Ain't" is a very nice solution to a nettlesome problem, which is that we don't have a good, sensible way to negate the contraction "I'm". "Am I not" sounds stuffy: "amn't I" never caught on, with good reason: and "aren't I" is ungrammatical ("Aren't I? No, apparently, I are not"), though it's what we use. "Ain't" has a solid grounding in etymological history; it began life as "an't", an abbreviated form of "am not", certainly cleaner-sounding and easier to say than "amn't". But along with other contractions, it was roundly derided and vilified; somehow, most other contractions survived this onslaught ("i'n't" also didn't), and now "ain't" has been contaminated beyond recovery. Alas.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that "ain't" became spread far too thinly. Instead of merely standing for "am not", it started doing duty as "are not" ("we ain't going"), "is not" ("he ain't here"), "have not" ("we ain't done nothing wrong"), "has not" ("she ain't told me"), and more besides. Standard English likes its contractions in a tidy little box: if they start spreading themselves promiscuously thin, it treats them with contempt. (The same thing has happened with "don't", which has exactly one meaning in standard English, "do not", though to some people it stands in for "does not"--"he don't live here"--which is considered substandard by most.)


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