By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & and Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
Ain’t is my favorite/favourite word in the English language.
Ain’t is not accepted by computer spell-check programs/programmes as being correct—not ever.
The Robert-Collins French-English Dictionary defines ain’t as follows:
Am not, is not, are not, has not, have not; verb: to be, to have.
The Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language defines ain’t as follows:
Early assimilation of amn’t, a contraction of am not; later confused with a’nt (are not), I’nt, ha’nt (has not, have not), am not. Also a dialectal or substandard contraction for is not, has not and have not. Ain’t was formerly standard for am not and is still defended by some authorities as a proper contraction for am not in interrogative constructions; as, I’m going too, ain’t I?
As computer spell-checks and Webster’s Dictionary show, ain’t is considered to be incorrect or substandard.
Current common usage belies the categorization of ain’t as being either incorrect or substandard now, though it was both in the past. The word used to be unacceptable because it fused two of the most important verbs in any language, to be and to have. It was taken as a given that this fusion was unsophisticated, a sign of linguistic ignorance.
The word has endured in its lowly status, perhaps because of its flexibility, because it performs a unique balancing act between two such important verbs. The “confused,” “substandard” and “incorrect” word has transcended its humble origin. It is still a fusion of to have and to be, and it is still as flexible as before. What has changed is who uses it and to what effect.
The difference is one of emphasis. “I ain’t going” carries much greater emphasis than the more standard “I am not going.” Nowadays, newspaper columnists, TV presenters and politicians use ain’t to make their vehemence clear: “I ain’t going to vote for that bill,” or, “I’m not going to vote for that bill because it just ain’t right.”
Ain’t has a peculiar status when it comes to its usage as a double negative. In English, in general, the use of a double negative is a linguistic fault where the two negatives effectively cancel each other out to make a positive. In other languages, such as Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Persian, etc., doubled negatives intensify the negation—and the languages are said to have negative concord. Old English, Middle English, and some modern English dialects, like African American Vernacular English and Cockney, also have it, but Standard English does not. Under Standard English grammatical rules, saying “I don’t got none” actually means that you do have some. Ain’t somehow manages to side-step the double negative rule. If one says “I ain’t got none,” it is understood to mean that one really doesn’t have any. The emphasis trumps the normal grammatical rule.
I recently watched a scene on an American crime drama series set in New York. The suspect was a young, professional, articulate man. The character could have said, “I haven’t killed anybody,” or “I am not a murderer.” The script called for the character to say, “I ain’t killed no one, man,” and that is probably what a real-life young, professional, articulate man would actually say.
Ain’t wasn’t used because the character spoke substandard English, nor because he was ignorant or confused. Ain’t was used to achieve an emphasis that could not be obtained by the use of either to be or to have: “I have not committed a crime, I am not guilty, I ain’t done it.”
I think it’s finally time for this versatile and expressive word to gain full acceptance in the English language. The lexicographers who compile dictionaries should note the former “confused,” “incorrect” and “substandard” status of the word but update their entries to reflect the current use of ain’t as a term that provides a unique emphasis.
Ain’t is a free-ranging, liberating word that has escaped hide-bound rules of grammar and carries our changing and evolving language along with it into new territory.
Ain’t it grand?
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as multi-cultural. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.