or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Where There's a Will, There's a Won't

It's hard to imagine English without contractions. They're such an integral part of the language that speech sounds stilted without them; having a character speak without using them is a writer's stock method of establishing foreignness. Yet once upon a time, they were considered vulgarisms, and some of the stricter grammarians embarked on a campaign to stamp them out.

The structure is simplicity itself: a pronoun plus one of the basic verbs (do, be, have) or modals (will, shall, must, can), or one of the basic verbs or modals plus its negation "not", smushed together with the missing letters marked by apostrophes.

English, of course, is so full of exceptions to its many rules that a couple of puzzles have arisen; the question of "won't" and the question of "shan't". So let's have a look at them.

"Won't" is plainly illogical. "Will" is the modal: the contraction of its negation obviously ought to be "willn't", which is a little hard to say but which would fit comfortably in our mouths if we'd been saying it for centuries. And yet its negation is "won't", which suggests that once upon a time, there was such a word as "woll". And, in fact, there once was.

It's important to keep in mind that people once wrote English exactly as they pronounced it, since writing is primarily a way of representing speech. Before dictionaries and the codification of spelling, if you pronounced "naught" as "nowt", then that's how you would spell it. Consonants have a way of remaining the same over the years, but vowels are highly flexible, and "will" was once variously pronounced "woll" and "wull" (the name "Willie" is still pronounced "Wullie", which is to say "woolly", in Scotland), so those spellings are also seen in writings all the way up to the 19th century. All of these forms of "will" would have been contracted, but over time, the contraction for "woll" was what remained with us, and so we ended up with "won't" instead of "win't" or "willn't".

The mystery of "shan't" is that there aren't two apostrophes in it. There clearly ought to be, since letters are dropped in two places, so the logical outcome would be "sha'n't". And, indeed, people often used to write that. It died out, and the reason isn't hard to see: it looks very odd indeed. (The sharp-eyed will have noticed that the same ought to be true of "won't"; two letters or letter pairs dropped equals two apostrophes, leading to "wo'n't". And once again, this form once had some currency: Lewis Carroll used to use it, as he did in the Lobster Quadrille. And it too expired from sheer awkwardness.)


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