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TWTS: Ain't too proud to talk about "ain't"

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After ten years of That’s What They Say, we’re still finding common language peeves that have somehow escaped us.

Recently, we were shocked to find that we’ve never dedicated an entire segment to “ain’t,” the oft-disparaged, yet surprisingly useful contraction that’s the source of much ire among linguists and other language enthusiasts.

This oversight came to our attention when a listener wanted to know, if we can say “you/we/they aren’t” for “you/we/they are not” and “he/she/it isn’t” for “he/she/it is not,” why can’t we say “I amn’t” for “I am not”?

Actually, there was a time when we said “I amn’t.” It’s first recorded in English in the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. You won’t hear it much today -- Merriam-Webster says it’s chiefly Scottish and Irish.

“Amn’t” probably gave way to “ain’t” which has been in the language since the 1700s. However, it’s also possible that “ain’t” has its roots in “isn’t” and “aren’t” and came about as pronunciations changed over time. For example, we know that “hain’t” was sometimes said in place of “haven’t.”

From the 1700s through the early 1800s, contractions like “ain’t,” “won’t,” “don’t,” etc. were condemned as bad usage. Since then, all of these contractions have been redeemed for use in informal writing and, nowadays, even in formal writing.

That is, all of them were redeemed except “ain’t.” People have come up with all sorts of theories as to why ain’t didn’t/shouldn’t make the cut. To hear more about that, listen to the audio above.

Honestly though, the only thing really wrong with “ain’t” is that someone decided there’s something wrong with it.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.