Monday, 27 July 2009

On aren't I

A correspondent writes to ask how aren't I? became acceptable usage. 'For first person questions it is easy enough to say, for instance, "I am right, am I not?" So why would it have developed as alternate usage?'

The history is a bit obscure, but it seems to be this. The verb forms of English have long existed in two styles - formal and informal. Alongside I am going we have informal I'm going. Alongside, formal are you not (earlier are not you) we have aren't you. And so on.

The first person followed this pattern. We find both am I not and amn't I - the latter usage still the colloquial norm today in Irish English and some Scots. But there's a pronunciation problem - the sequence of /m/ and /n/ is awkward, and it was a natural development to simplify the consonant cluster. The final /t/ made it more likely that the simplification would go to /ant/ rather than /amt/, and this is what we find in 18th century texts, where it appears as an't. The OED has an earliest citation for 1799, but I'm sure much earlier instances will turn up in due course.

The pronunciation of the /a/ vowel probably varied in length - sometimes short, sometimes long ('ahnt'). That would have made it sound exactly the same as the other forms in the paradigm (aren't you / we / they) - bearing in mind that the /r/ after the vowel would not have been sounded in the newly emerging Received Pronunciation around 1800. So, if the first person sounded like the other persons, it would have been very natural for people to start spelling the word in the same way as the others. It's an example of orthographic analogy. Aren't I became the standard form in British English, and an't I (very popular in the 1800s) gradually fell out of use. It's widely used in US English too, but some Americans dislike it, finding it genteel.

As soon as aren't I became the norm, it lost its colloquial status. So, if people could say and write aren't I in formal situations, what could they say in informal situations? The stage was set for the emergence of a further alternative: ain't, which originally didn't have the nonstandard resonance that it has today, being widely used as a colloquialism among upper-class as well as lower-class speakers. It was probably the frequent use of this form in the literary representation of lower-class speech (especially in Dickens) that eventually turned educated people against it. Fowler tried to resuscitate it, in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, describing ain't as 'a natural contraction... supplying a real want', but his view had no influence.

17 comments:

Raifʻhār Doremítzwr said...

The entry in the OED on-line: http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50009132 has only one citation of "an't" used to mean "am not" --- dated 1737. I found a Google-Book-Search hit of the form from 1718: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dgsOAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA3&dq=%22an%27t+I%22&lr=lang_en&as_drrb_is=b&as_minm_is=1&as_miny_is=1100&as_maxm_is=1&as_maxy_is=1720&num=100&as_brr=0&ei=XFtuSvXJHaKGzASL4e32Dg

Fowler prescribed "a'n't" (and not "amn't", for the reason of euphony you gave).

R A Harless said...

In the area where I live, York, PA (USA), the word aint has become a sentence unto itself. It usually is used in agreement, as in "Aint it so."

Raifʻhār Doremítzwr said...

Kinda like "innit" in use and meaning?

DC said...

Not really, because innit tends to be used in an invariable way with all persons - like n'est-ce pas in French.

Raifʻhār Doremítzwr said...

Oh? I thought "ain't", at least informally, could be used for all the grammatical people...

DC said...

Yes, but you have to say the pronoun (ain't I / you etc, unlike innit.

Ruby said...

In my early years as an EFL teacher I dutifully taught the verb "to be", going through and writing on the blackboard "I am, you are ... I am not, you are not ..." and then explaining that in spoken language we usually contract the negative: "I amn't, you aren't ...". I had no idea that my (Scottish) use was not standard :-(

DC said...

You may have started a trend!

peter ahern said...

i seem to be the only person in the world to use the contraction: amn't, as in "amn't i clever" as opposed to "am i not clever" or "aren't i clever" etc. is there a cure for this and where have i caught it from, pray tell. i am irish, but my parents and irish friends disavow any knowledge of this term being used, either by themselves or in generl. please help

DC said...

You're by no means alone! It's still common in Ireland and Scotland, but it's colloquial, so anyone brought up in fear of standard English will very likely deny using it. That's a shame, as it's one of the nicest distinguishing features of Hiberno-English, to my mind. I've still got some Irish relatives who use it, and I've slipped into it myself on occasion, when visiting them.

Ian said...

Aren't I sounds perfectly OK to me, but I aren't does not. I (as a native British (London) speaker) would use I'm not instead. Why is that I wonder?

KLZ said...

This discussion reminded me of my relatives from Lancashire who say 'Am I not?' instead of 'Aren't I?' or 'Are you not?' instead of 'Aren't you?'. It's weird because whilst in their company I always find myslef saying it too! I was born there, although brought up in Chester.

mollymooly said...

anyone brought up in fear of standard English will very likely deny using it.

I was years out of university before I discovered that most non-Irish people don't say "amn't", and years more before I found any Irish people who don't. I wouldn't consider amn't any more colloquial than other -n't contractions.

While there are some Irish people who would regard standard Irish English as identical to standard English English apart from the accent, I think the majority would disagree. However, the aforementioned majority would disagree among themselves about which uniquely Irish features are standard, colloquial, or nonstandard.

Bob Mudford said...

I seem to recall reading the following defense of "I aren't".

When making a negative of a modal or prime auxiliary the vowel changes. So "will - won't", "shall - shan't", "can - can't" etc. We stretch the vowel sound. So "am - aan't" follows the some pronunciation "rule" as "can - can't". Unfortunately the stretched "a" vowel is indicated with an "r" and it's spelled "aren't" and that causes people to object.

But I can't now find my original source.

DC said...

The vowel length argument depends on the accent, to an extent. In some US accents, for instance, can and can'tare similar in length.

Bob Mudford said...

Really? Is it the same vowel sound? I'm sitting here trying to say it and I can't really get my tongue around it.

DC said...

A bit difficult to convey the effect without IPA, but the kind of accent I was thinking of has diphthongs in both - imagine can said almost as 'kayuhn' and can't as 'kayuhnt'. In the UK I've heard a long vowel in can and a short vowel in can't, such as in various Scots accents.