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Abbey Johnson

ENGL 292

Dr. Higl

2 May 2018

Say It Ain't So: An Analysis of the Etymology and the Colloquial Usage of "Ain't”

Ain’t faces a great deal of controversy in the English language, often being mistaken as

“not a word.” However, the contraction very much is a word, as its own complicated etymology

and is used both widely and often. While the word has much controversy surrounding it, and it is

not acceptable for formal writing, the word holds merit for use in fiction for characterization.

While the word faces a great deal of controversy, ain’t does have a place in the

dictionary, as it is commonly used in colloquial speech. Prior to researching the word, I believed

that ain’t is simply a contraction for am not and that the word, in addition to being widely

disliked, is often misused. This is because ain’t often functions as is not or has not, thus making

the contraction for am not grammatically incorrect in many sentences. However, ain’t is not so

simple a contraction. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ain’t does not only contract

the words “am not,” but also are not, is not, have not, and has not. This is the only definition

available through the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for

the word is not any more specific, simply describing ain’t as “regional and nonstandard.” Ain’t

does not have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, but rather exists within the

definition of the verb be. In the New International – Webster 3, ain’t is defined as “prob. contr.

of are not, is not, am not, & have not.” Within print dictionaries, it is often difficult to find a

definition for ain’t at all. This is because, according to David Crystal, when ain’t appeared in the

third edition of the New International – Webster 3, there was “lexicographical controversy”
because “not condemning such substandard usages as ‘ain’t,’ and by failing to identify

colloquialisms through the use of a separate label” put the dictionary at fault.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ain’t is primarily used in the United States

and Britain. The word originally developed as an elision from the words am not, losing the “o” in

place of an apostrophe. However, the word we know today is ain’t, not amn’t. This is because

amn’t is difficult to say out loud. According to professor Anders Orbeck at Michigan State

College, “assimilation to an n’t followed [am not]; then the simplification of the long consonant

might have been accompanied by a lengthening of the vowel to Early Modern [ae:], from which

the present dipthong would develop” (Stevens). This lengthening of the vowel occurred during

the Northern Vowel Shift. According to Patricia Donaher and Seth Katz’s Ain’thology: the

History and Life of a Taboo Word, “[Otto] Jespersen, [a Danish linguist], gave what has

remained the most commonly accepted account of ain’t as derived from am not, with the

assimilation of /m/ to the neighboring /n/ as the lengthening and dipthongization of the vowel /a/

to /ei/.” Thus, ain’t becomes what we know it as today. According to the OED, an't and ain't

possibly represent am not, rather than the 2nd singular plural. An't and ain't were reanalyzed as

equaling "are not." Because of this, aren't superseded an't in standard English.
fig. 1

The first recorded used of the word within its Oxford English Dictionary entry is in 1667

in the sentence, “Look you, Sir, I an't for complementical words; but here Stands the case” from

A. Bailey Spightful Sister iii. i. 26. Here, the word is clearly in its developing form of an’t,

missing the “i” that it includes today. An example from 1785 is as follows: “J. O'Keeffe Peeping

Tom of Coventry i. iii. 10 Now, ain't I an old chaunter?” Here, ain’t is in the form we see it in

today; however, as the examples from the Oxford English Dictionary continue, the word shifts

back and forth between the an’t and ain’t forms, not becoming consistently ain’t until 1875.

Referring to figure 1, am not is clearly the primary choice for the written word, excluding the

year 1650, when am not declines rapidly and ain’t increases greatly. I can find no evidence for

why this occurs. Ain’t, for the most part, is consistently unused in written works until about

1840. However, it is used. This is because ain’t is rarely used in writing and is primarily a

spoken word, not a written one. Thus, while figure 1’s data is not entirely accurate because it

tracks the written word, it is still relevant in displaying the general frequency of use of ain’t.
fig. 2

fig. 3

Although ain’t has much controversy surrounding it, the word still survives and is

frequently used. Figure 2 is a map tracking the use of the word ain’t in Twitter posts in the

United States. While figure 2 is also tracking the use of ain’t in the written word, its relevance
lies in its map, which illustrates where in the country ain’t is most often used on Twitter.

According to the map, ain’t is most commonly used in tweets made south of St. Louis, Missouri

and east of Dallas, Texas. Figure 3 is a poll from my personal Instagram account, recording the

how often ain’t is used in spoken speech, which neither figure 1 nor figure 2 could track. Of my

350+ followers, 51 responded to my question: “Do you use the word ‘ain’t’ in regular speech?”

Of those responses, 68% (35) answered no, but 32% (16) said yes. Though the number of

responses is very low and the number of those who answered yes is less than half, figure 3

effectively shows that ain’t is still commonly used in colloquial speech.

Ain’t, both in written and spoken word, is considered informal and, frankly, a marker of

lower intelligence. This is because the word is “used by lower class speakers…” (Pilar).

Specifically, “in American English ain’t as a negative contraction of be is associated with the

speech of middle level education (cf. Malmstrom 1963: 285)” (Pilar). In addition to this, ain’t is

also often associated with the south and southern drawls. This association is consistent with

figure 2, which shows that ain’t is most often used in Twitter posts written in the south. Despite

this, the south is actually not where ain’t is most often used in spoken English. In fact, “a large

majority of high school graduates in all areas say ‘ain’t I.’ Of the cultivated informants, about

20% in New England, about 35% in the Middle and South Atlantic States, and about 73% in the

North Central States use ‘ain’t I,’ although no college graduate in the Upper Midwest does so”

(Malstrom). This denotes two things: first, that ain’t is used more often in spoken English in the

north – specifically the north central states, which is essentially the Midwest – than it is in the

south by nearly 40%. These results are vastly different from the common association of ain’t to

the south. While the north had a vowel shift, as mentioned previously, the south had one of their

own, cleverly named the Southern Vowel Shift. According to Valerie Fridland at the University
of Nevada – Reno, “the fronting and monopthongization of /ay/ appears to initially trigger the

shift of the front system, allowing laxing and centralization of the long upgliding vowels /ey/ and

/iy/.” In short, this means that the /ey/ sound present in ain’t shifted further back in the mouth to

resemble the a sound in “apple,” for example. As a result, the ain’t that we know – and use – is

more difficult to say, as that long a sound does not seamlessly integrate into the rest of the

southern dialects because of the Southern Vowel Shift. The second thing denoted by that earlier

statistic is that education very much plays a role in the use of the word ain’t. Looking back at

that statistic, the percentages noted all refer to high school graduates, as “no college graduate in

the Upper Midwest [uses ‘ain’t I’].” This essentially just means that the use of ain’t is correlated

with education level and thus is a correct association.

fig. 4

Despite the fact that ain’t is commonly used in colloquial speech, lots of controversy

continues to surround the word. For example, inn Dennis E. Baron’s “Grammar and Good Taste:

Reforming the American Language,” he describes the opinions of Henry Alford, who was dean

of Canterbury and editor of the Greek New Testament. Apparently, “Alford opposes ‘ain’t’ even

though it is often used by educated persons, partly because it is proscribed … and also because it
is ill-formed. As a contraction, it bears no resemblance to ‘am not’ or ‘are not,’ and therefore he

claims it may not be used legitimately to replace these phrases.” To rephrase, Alford condemned

ain’t because it doesn’t look like a natural contraction for any two words, and thus shouldn’t be

accepted. This seems to be a common argument, as H.W. Fowler, in his book Modern English

Usage, written in 1926, states that “’a(i)n’t’ is merely colloquial & as used for ‘isn’t’ is an

uneducated blunder & serves no useful purpose. But it is a pity that ‘a(i)n’t’ for ‘am not,’ being a

natural contraction & supplying real want, should shock us as though tarred with the same

brush.” If we already have more acceptable and common words to use over ain’t, why don’t we

simply use those other words? While Alford argues that ain’t has no natural contraction, Fowler

accepts am not as a contraction, though condemning its use as a contraction of any other two

words. Even Microsoft Word views ain’t negatively, as seen in figure 4, as Word underlines the

word in red, then proceeds to offer suggestions including is not, aren’t, and am not.

Not all controversy was bad, however. The controversy that emerged following the

inclusion of ain’t in the New International – Webster 3, while initially negative, was followed by

“many merits of the new edition, such as its fresh approach to definition… [which] received

hardly any attention in the popular press” (Crystal). Further, in William and Marry Morris’

Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, a panel of consultants were asked, “Would you

accept ‘I ain’t the least bit interested?’” In referenced to writing, 96% said no, but in speech

40.7% said yes. However, “it should be noted that several of the respondents who approved the

use of ‘ain’t’ in writing indicated that they were referring to its use in fictional dialogue to

establish character.” All in all, very few people, if any, accept ain’t in formal writing.

Throughout all of my research, there are still two things I speculate on: why those in the

north uses ain’t more often than those in the south and what will be the fate of ain’t. As for the
first, despite the evidence supporting the Southern Vowel Shift, I feel as though more support is

needed to explain why ain’t is used more often in the north than in the south. Consider the

southern drawl. While the south drawls out their words, the north is full of fast talkers. Because

of this, the north is more likely to use contractions so that they don’t need to slow down their

words. While this is purely speculation and has to evidentiary support, it is an interesting

thought. And for the second speculation, because ain’t is so controversial and its use both in

writing and in speech is met with such negativity, as well as serving no necessary purpose, as the

English language already contains words of the same meaning, ain’t will die out from the

language in the future. All in all, ain’t, despite the controversy it faces, its lack of a definitive

definition, and the fact that it is a word almost entirely confined to spoken English, thus making

recording its usage difficult, is used often enough and widely enough that it can be considered a

word, though it should not be used in formal writing, but rather used in fiction for

characterization.
Works Cited

“Ain't.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ain't.

Baron, Dennis E. Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language. New Haven:

Yale University Press, 1982.

"be, v." OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/16441.

Accessed 21 February 2018.

Crystal, David. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge University

Press, 2003.

Donaher, Patricia, and Seth Katz. Ain'thology: the History and Life of a Taboo Word. Cambridge

Scholars Publ, 2015.

Fowler, H. W. 1858-1933. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: The Clarendon

press; London, H. Milford, 1926.

Fridland, Valerie. "Rebel Vowels: How Vowel Shift Patterns Are Reshaping Speech in the

Modern South." Language & Linguistics Compass, vol. 6, no. 3, Mar. 2012, pp. 183-192.

EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/lnc3.325.

Jean-Baptiste Michel*, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray,

William Brockman, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan

Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman

Aiden*. Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized

Books. Science (Published online ahead of print: 12/16/2010)

Malmstrom, Jean. “Current English: AIN'T Again.” The English Journal, vol. 49, no. 3, 1960,

pp. 204–205. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/809195.


Morris, William, and Mary Morris. Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage. New York:

Harper & Row, 1975.

Pilar, Castillo González María. Uncontracted negatives and negative contractions in

contemporary English a corpus-Based study. Universidad de Santiago

de Compostela, Servizo de Publicacións e Intercambio Científico, 2007.

Sonnad, Nikhil. “The Great American Word Mapper.” Quartz, qz.com/862325/the-great-

american-word-mapper/#int/words=aint&smoothing=3.

Stevens, Martin. “The Derivation of 'Ain't'.” American Speech, vol. 29, no. 3, 1954, pp. 196–

201. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/454240.