Tag Archives: English

Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–“yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines:

1. We can’t think without words.

2. If we don’t use words correctly, then we can’t possibly think correctly.

3. If we can’t think correctly, we can’t make good decisions.

4. If we can’t make good decisions, we’re going to royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us.

5. If we royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us, then we won’t be happy.

If you pulled up short somewhere between 1 and 2, congratulations: you have more sense than Gwynne’s publisher, who thought that a book based on this proof was a good idea (and no, it’s not part of their humor line).

Knopf’s press sheet for Gwynne’s book begins with, “The greatest danger to our way of life is the decline of grammar.” I read this and returned, face-down, to the living room rug. Not war, not poverty, not obesity, not hunger, not sloth, not ADHD, not corporate welfare, not social welfare, not an ineffectual government, not a giant asteroid, not $2 Chicken McNuggets. The decline of grammar. I put a pillow over my head for good measure.

The insistence that “bad grammar”–by which Gwynne and plenty others really mean “usages I don’t like”–will eventually lead to anarchy makes me want to burn shit down, man. Not only is it a pathetic attempt at fearmongering on the most inane scale ever, but history proves otherwise. It is possible for “bad usages” to thrive in ignominy, lexical bastards, without doing any damage at all to English.

“Ain’t” is a perfect example of this. No one’s quite sure where “ain’t” came from–some etymologists link it to the contraction “amn’t” for “am not,” and some to “han’t” for “have not,” and we know its earliest form was “an’t” for “are not” and “am not”–but it was certainly in vogue during the 17th century, when, according to some, Charles II of England decided to make it A Thing. Its origins are murky because it was primarily spoken: its earliest uses are in plays and dialogue from the early 1600s, including the line “these shoes a’n’t ugly,” uttered by a character sublimely named Lord Foppington. God bless those Restoration dramatists.

But by the end of the Restoration, contractions became verba non grata. They were “the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers; the great Depravity of our Taste; and the continual Corruption of our Style” (Jonathan Swift, The Tatler). Thank the good Lord the 18th century had Jonathan Swift, a beacon of sense and taste and literary judgment (“an’t you an impudent lying slut”–Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella).

The disparagement of “ain’t” went on from there. It was derided as an Americanism–by a guy we let sign the Declaration of Independence!–and branded as illogical (“A contraction must surely retain some trace of the resolved form from which it is abbreviated. What, then, is “ain’t”?“). If negative contractions in general were a blotch on English’s fair complexion, then “ain’t” was essentially the flesh-eating bacteria of the 19th and 20th centuries.

To prove how horrible “ain’t” was, popular novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray put it in the mouths of despicable, inelegant people–thereby perpetuating its use. It began showing up in other places: fixed constructions like “ain’t I” and “things ain’t what they used to be”; in letters and correspondence, where it was a mark of a close relationship; and in reporting and fiction, when the author used it intentionally to “down-talk” into a lower, more working-class register. In short, as vulgar as it was, people kept using the damn thing.

Finally, John Opdycke, a usage maven of the early 20th century, took matters into his own hands. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE:

WELL THAT TAKES CARE OF THAT

 

 

 

It was a strong statement, and though it took time, people submitted to Opdycke’s wisdoNOOOoooooooo–

Louis Jordon, you majestic troll, you.

Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby (1944)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Ain’t” has been maligned for most of its existence, and yet a great dictionary notes, “although widely disapproved as nonstandard and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t … is flourishing in American English.”

You know what else is flourishing in American English? The rest of American English. In spite of the wrong-headed “ain’t,” a word that just about no one likes but everyone uses, we’ve still managed to communicate with one another beautifully. In fact, it’s almost as if people are able to use “ain’t” and still think clearly, act rationally, do rightly, live happily, and otherwise verb adverbially in a generally positive way.

That’s what makes Gwynne’s proof so ridiculous. There are people in the world who speak beautifully, whose powers of rhetoric and usage are keen, and yet who are nonetheless horrible people who wreak havoc in people’s lives. Yes, fine, Godwin’s Law invoked: I’m talking about Hitler. But we don’t even need to look that deep into the heart of grammatical darkness. We all know someone who is 100% orthodox in their grammatical opinions, spotless as a lamb, and whose life is still a shambles.

Let’s flip the proof: what about those of us with unhappy, messy lives? If my friend’s husband walks out on her, are you claiming, Gwynne, that it ultimately stems from the fact that she misuses “beg the question”? For I might take issue with that, Sir, and indeed claim you are a witless jackass.

I think English is pretty great, and I believe that she’s resilient and far more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. But more than that: I think that people (for the most part) are pretty great and I believe that they are more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. Perhaps for some, good grammar leads to happiness. I am glad for those people. I am also glad for the people for whom personal happiness doesn’t depend a good goddamn on grammar. N. M. Gwynne, who by his own proof must be the happiest person on the planet, who is so confident in his happiness that he states “I am on the point of making history,” has made, to my count, at least two grammatical errors in the dedication of his book, and yet he doesn’t seem any worse off for it. That might be proof enough.

 

[1]. For your great patience, I now present to you the logical proof that I discovered written into the back cover of my 10th-grade Geometry text book, and which I thought was so amazing that I memorized it and nothing else in Geometry.

A Proof To Establish How Many Legs A Horse Has

  1. Horses have an an even number of legs.
  2. They have two legs in back and forelegs in front.
  3. Two plus four is six.
  4. Six is an odd number of legs for a horse.
  5. The only number which is both odd and even is infinity.
  6. Therefore, horses have an infinite number of legs.

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Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

In Defense of Talking Funny

[Ed. note: Five months! I know. My (very poor) excuse is that I was working on another big project that I can’t tell you about yet. In the meantime, here’s an extra-long post to pay you back for the extra-long wait.]

I was talking with a friend–well, a “friend”–about some of the videos we were about to shoot for M-W. We were at a crowded, chichi restaurant, the type of place where the waiters pull your chair out for you and ask if you want sparkling, still, or mineral water. In short, a place far above my usual grab-and-go, paper-napkins milieu. A place where it behooves you to not only look smart, but sound smart. A place where you’d use the word “behoove.”

So I was behooving, using some expansive vocabulary and trying not to think about how I was paying $12 for a glass of wine when I can buy a whole bottle of it for $12 at my local discount booze shack, when my friend interrupted me. “You’re saying that wrong.”

It was the cliché record scratch, a loud fart in church. “What?”

“‘Towards’. You’re saying it oddly– ‘TOE-wards’. It’s ‘TWARDS’.”

I blinked and dropped a forkful of frisée-glacé-reduction-foofaraw down my shirt. “It is?”

He looked unnerved: the English language is supposed to be my area of expertise. “It’s pronounced ‘TWARDS’. I mean, right? Here, we’ll ask the waiter.”

My stomach hit my shoes. “No, no, I’ll take your word for it.” And we attempted to go back to the conversation we had before I started talking about the videos. I say “attempted”: we did, in fact, have more conversation, though I don’t recall much of what was said. I was just trying to avoid saying the word “towards.”

Fast-forward a week and I’m sitting in the back conference room at Merriam-Webster. We’re two hours into my portion of the video shoot. Though we’re using “cool lights,” it’s 100 degrees in the room; my throat is raw; I am wearing enough makeup to cover the surface of the moon; my antiperspirant has long since given up the pH-balanced ghost and I am sweating through my clothes. I know that we are fast approaching the tipping point when I will end up slipping into complete incoherence and blinking idiocy, the point when I will not be able to say my very own name without getting it wrong, which means we need to finish this script quickly, quickly.

It is, of course, the script that features the word “towards.”

My reserves, which are naturally on the scanty side when you put me in front of a camera, were very low as we started. I tried to relax as I came up on “towards,” but I could feel my stomach tighten. “That’s the one that etymologists lean oh oh oh I am so ashamed I’ve been saying this word wrong my entire life how is that possible now is my chance to get it right  TWAAAAAAARDS,” I brayed like Balaam’s ass.

The director looked out from behind the monitor. “Um, okay,” she laughed. “Let’s try that again?”

It took five more takes, each sounding slightly less asinine before we moved on to the next script. Even now, I can’t watch the video because there is still a hint of ohmigod, ohmigod in my eyes as I say “towards.”

We finished; I raced back upstairs to the burlap comfort of my cubicle; I pulled up the entry for “towards” in the Online Dictionary.

hee-haw, motherfuckers I put my head down on my desk in relief. “I knew it,” I whispered, prompting my long-suffering cubicle mate to mutter, “I’m sure you did.”

Dialects are a funny thing: everyone speaks one, but we only notice them when they’ve been dislocated. They’re part of the reason why we have five listed pronunciations of “towards” in the Online Dictionary; they’re the birthplace of words both loved (“kerfuffle”) and despised (“irregardless”); they’re the linguistic air we live and move and have our being in. 

To get technical, dialects are varieties of a language that have their own set of speakers with their own vocabulary, grammatical rules, and accent, and they can be regional, socioeconomic, ethnic,  tonal, and even a combination thereof. American English has eight major dialects–or 24, or hundreds, depending on who you ask and what they define as a “dialect.” Most of us don’t just speak a dialect, but switch between several depending on where, why, and how we are. And this is frustrating for the people who think that language shouldn’t be bound by culture, era, or region: that one kind of English (usually theirs) is good enough for every single English speaker in the world, all the time.

You know what I mean. You’re on the bus, heading home from work. Some people are reading; some people are talking on their phones; some people are having loud, shrieking conversations with each other. (I am leaning against the window, hoping the swaying of the bus will jostle my after-work brain back into place.) Two teenagers are talking:

“Yeah, I aks him, how many tesses you gonna give us? And he’s all, I ain’t tell you that!”

“We better not have no tesses on Wednesday. I workin’ Tuesdays.”

“I hear that.”

At this point, I will close my eyes, because there will be at least one person on the bus (and usually it turns out to be the person sitting next to me) who will crane their neck to verify that the teens in question are black, and then will turn to me and sneer, “God, don’t they teach English anymore?”

I will keep my eyes closed, because I do not want to have this conversation right now. I do not want to open my eyes and stare sweet, smiling death at this person and inform them that what the teenagers are speaking is, in fact, English. I do not want to try to explain to this person–a person who is, no doubt, just as tired and carsick as I am–that the teenagers are speaking a dialect called African American Vernacular English, that the dialect is actually a rich and complex (albeit controversial) one, and that if the listener doesn’t like listening to AAVE, then they can stop eavesdropping on a conversation that doesn’t involve them.

Languages are made up of dialects. They fit together like jigsaw puzzles: remove one or two pieces and you’ll still be able to see the whole image, but the picture is incomplete nonetheless and you’re definitely not getting more than $0.50 for it at a garage sale. Oh, of course, you nod, dialects GOOD–and yet there are likely dialects you’d be happy to lose between the couch cushions or down the heating vent. It’s easy to decry the banning of a dialect you don’t encounter in a far-away school district; it’s much harder to live with the dialects that ride the bus with you. I get het up about dialect not just because I want dialects to flourish, but because, like most of us, I learned at one point that the dialects I spoke were regarded as uneducated or wrong.

I’ve lived the code-switching life. My parents spoke a combination of Western American English and Inland Northern American English; I went to school in a primarily Mexican and African-American neighborhood, where Chicano and AAVE were the primary dialects. But this is knowledge gained in hindsight: back then, I was a kid, dumb and free and trying to fit in. On the playground, I learned double-dutch and dozens; I’d use the quick, clipped up-talk of my Latin friends, then switch to the swingy, low-voweled cadence of my black friends. I called people “chica” and “homes”; I “-g”-dropped and /z/-swapped and had not a linguistic care in the world.

One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. “Can you queet talkin’ like deese, because we don’t talk like deese? Drives me crazy.”

I was flummoxed. “I’m just talking,” I said.

“You sound Mexican,” she said, “and you’re not. If you’re not careful, your friends are going to think that you’re making fun of them.” It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.

My classmates and I came of age before the Great Ebonics Controversy, but what boiled over in Oakland was simmering everywhere else. I watched my African-American friends split over sounding “white” and sounding “black.” One particularly nasty middle-school teacher told students that if he called on them and they spoke “improper English,” they’d receive a failing grade in class participation; more than once he told students to “learn the language we speak here in the U.S.” My friend Stephanie was incensed. We lay on our stomachs in her living room, doing our current events homework and talking about this teacher. She sneered, “I don’t need no old white man tellin’ me to learn English, ‘cuz I already speak it.” Her mother hollered from the kitchen, “I don’t need some, Stephanie. Some old white man.” 

Even my less-reviled dialect of birth proved problematic. When I moved east for college, I had to learn to code-switch again. I said “howdy” so many times that someone worked up the courage to ask if I lived on a ranch (no) and rode a horse to school (are you fucking kidding me?). If I let “well” slip into a polysyllabic smear, I could expect to hear someone respond with a “yeehaw.” I switched from “pop” to “soda,” from “sub” to “grinder.” It was in vain. “Wow,” my college roommate said to me the first time I met her, “you have an accent.”

“So do you,” I responded, and she riposted with exactly what I was thinking. “Nuh-uh,” she said. “No, I talk normal.”

Everyone, from the guy with the poshest British accent on record to me in full-on hick mode, thinks that they talk normally. And so they do: everyone learns language within a culture, a context, an era that is peculiar to them, and within that culture, context, and era, their speech is normal. That’s why, when we want to lampoon uncool parents in comedies, we have them either use the slang of their generation (“Groovy, man”) or butcher the slang of their children’s generation (“That plan sounds radical, my home bro.”) The language of their youth is outdated, and they haven’t mastered the language of today’s youth. They are linguistically out of joint, which leads to copious lulz.

People like to belong; the corollary is that we like to set up boundaries between us and them.  And so most of us struggle to accept that different ways of speaking are just that: different, not wrong. We’ve had a lot of correspondents write in recently to complain about Ebonics and how it’s ruining the purity of English &c. Ignoring the fact that “Ebonics” is a skunked and outdated term, used more to disparage than anything else, the complaints have touched on American-English spellings, the pronunciation of “nuclear,” and the existence of “irregardless”–none of which are unique to or markers of AAVE. Furthermore, lots of the constructions used in AAVE are also used in Southern American English. Are you sure it’s all AAVE’s fault?

The impulse to set up divisive boundaries runs deep: even though I’m a dialect lover (so much so that the first time I met a new colleague who grew up in Pittsburgh, I immediately pestered him to do the dialect, do it, do it, and wouldn’t leave him alone until he had), I’m not above sneering myself.

My youngest daughter is a crazy smart, crazy chatty girl who happens to have spent her formative linguistic years outside of Philadelphia. This means she has a terminal case of hoagiemouth: the odd diphthonged Philly O; the pronunciation /wooder/ for “water”; the way that she says the personal pronoun “I” as if she is reciting, in reverse alphabetical order and all at once, all the vowels we have in English.

One day I came home from work to find her playing videogames on the couch. “Have you done your homework?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she responded, “I’m done my homework.”

The cliché record scratch, the loud fart in church. “You’re what?”

“I’m done my homework.”

It’s a common construction in these parts: you hear every local with every level of education say, “I’m done my/the X.” And yet hearing it in the mouth of my daughter drove me–champion of dialect!–out of my goddamned mind, because so Labov help me, someday you are going to be in a job interview and you’re going to tell someone ‘you’re done your college education,’ and they are going to think you are a moron and you will never get a job, and then you will live with me forever.

That I code-switched as a kid–and was called out for not code-switching at home–was lost on me as I pictured this bright young woman, my baby, being called “stupid” because of that dialectal missing preposition. I tried to gently impress this on her.

She was unfazed. “Whatever,” she said, “you say ‘howdy’ and you got a job.”

“You just need to realize,” I fretted, “that people will judge you based on how you talk.”

“Mom,” she said, “I know.” Of course she knows: I’m judging her already.

Standard English (a dialect in and of itself, hey oh!) is the form of English used by the people with power and prestige, but it is a minority dialect. Most English speakers natively speak something besides Standard English. It’s also mutable as different groups with different speech patterns gain power and prestige. “Sunk” for “sank” was once derided as wrong, hickish, and uneducated in the U.S. Now it’s Standard English. “Aks” for “ask” isn’t illiterate: it was the original pronunciation of “ask” and appears in a number of American-English dialects. It’s ludicrous to think that the vast majority of people who use the “aks” pronunciation–people who, unlike lexicographers, go outside on a regular basis and have human interaction with a wide variety of people–don’t know that it’s not the currently accepted pronunciation.

So when you encounter dialect in the wild, instead of getting angry that another English speaker is ruining English, perhaps see it as a sign of acceptance. The speaker feels comfortable enough with you to let down their guard and speak in the most natural way possible. You might consider reciprocating. After all, we all sound funny and uneducated to someone out there. 

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Dear English

You and I have known each other quite a while–37 years!–and we’ve certainly had our ups and downs. I’m told that I was gaga over you for the first few years, reading early, talking nonstop–not even pausing for breath when I talked but instead teaching myself how to speak on inhalation. Other people thought it was cute at first, but I know they soon grew sick of my obsessiveness with you and your willingness to feed that obsession.

My ardor cooled the longer we were together, which I’ve heard is normal in any long-term relationship. I had other interests that you didn’t share, though you were happy to quietly accompany me in my fort-making and bike-riding. You told me stories and kept me entranced, as though you knew that others were trying to tell me the truth about you, pulling me away from you. Mr. Hubbard, third grade, who taught me that some parts of you were better left to my own secret discoveries and not to be shouted on the playground when I jumped from the swings; Ms. Carlson, seventh grade, who told me that you were too deep for me and encouraged me to leave you for math; Ms. Talasek.

Oh, Ms. Talasek: bright-eyed, slightly manic, endowed with a magnificent Roman nose, and deeply, deeply in love with you. She’d swan about the room, book in hand, and elocute like her life depended on it. She began our studies on 1984 by reading aloud the first sentence and finishing with “Just listen to that! ‘Striking thirteen,’ the way those vowels all hammer together!” She beamed. My eyes widened, then narrowed.

We’ve never talked about this, but you must know that her admiration was the reason I spent less time with you at that point. To discover that someone else knew and loved you better than I did–and that you apparently welcomed her attention! Well. In truth, I’m not ashamed of what I did. Relationships falter. Ends come. I took her love for you as a sign that perhaps we were done. German was good to me, in its own regimented way. And perhaps this smacks of justification, but I would never have even known about Latin or Greek if you hadn’t introduced me.

And that. You’d think I’d have noticed all the Latinate and Greek words you had collected in previous dalliances. The Italian and Japanese. The French. No wonder you never commented on my indiscretions.

I tried to forget you and move on, but everywhere I looked, there you were. Boys with interesting hair wooed me with songs they’d written–songs that featured you prominently. On the bus, I’d stare out the window at the passing landscape, trying to get excited about German’s subjunctive, and the bus would stop right in front of a sign with you plastered all over it. I’d go hiking to escape you and find that someone had sprayed you all over the rock I was sitting on. You were under my skin, stuck in my head, written on my heart–and I’ll be damned if those aren’t all idioms that you gave me.

Running from you seemed like madness, so instead I decided to see what made you tick. I took Old English and studied your baby pictures. All those letters and digraphs you’d outgrown, how rough and tumble you were as a toddler, all swords and ships and battles. It was a different side of you. I was intrigued, but still cautious: I knew you.

Then that fateful February day. The snowdrops were up in spite of the snow. Thin winter light supplemented by humming fluorescents. A chilly subterranean classroom. Beowulf lines 212 and 213, recited aloud by me: streamas wundon / sund wið sande. I had to stop, suddenly breathless. The sound of it, the alliterative “s”, that deliberate and chewy structure. I said it again; it eddied around my mouth. I saw you. No swords or ships or battles.  Streams wound, sea with sand–you were beautiful.

I hope you bought the Beowulf scribes excellent beer in appreciation for all they did for you.

Chaucer documented your awkward teen years, Shakespeare your irreverent early adulthood. The more I read, the more I was captivated with you again. First loves are always the strongest.

It’s a good thing you are so amazing, because working with you has not always been easy. I don’t think you realize how absolutely illogical you can be. Tutoring ESL students was a trial of my affections. How could I defend you as a language with regular and easy verbs when your 200 most common verbs are all wackily irregular? You try explaining irregular plurals to a Chinese teenager. Don’t even get me started on your orthography.

But they’d go back to their rooms, and I’d petulantly pick up a book, and you’d throw me a word like “oleaginous.” You send me.

Lexicography is a mixed bag, I’ll admit. All your inconsistencies–not to mention your inconstancy–are paraded in front of me daily. You’re “regardless” to one set of people, and “irregardless” to the next. \LIE-brair-ee\ and \LIE-berr-ee\, doesn’t matter to you. Some of your nouns are singular and plural and count and noncount all at the same time. You want the whole world to be in love with you, and you pitch woo wildly. In every direction possible.

At the same time, you’ve been under attack. Dryden and the neo-classicists who wanted to put you in a Latin corset. Modern groups who protest the very existence of half of your vocabulary. People who want to hack off your unattractive bits and make you into their own wholesome-school-girl fantasy language. Yet you move on, (ir)regardless. Your weedy thriving isn’t an irritation to be tolerated–it’s a miracle, one I am daily grateful for.

According to my baby book, 36 years ago today I opened my slobbery little mouth, glubbed the word “cup,” and began the longest relationship of my life. Happy anniversary, English. I love you dearly, whoring and all.

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