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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

If 'ain't' isn't in the Dictionary, it ought to be

"Ain't ain't in the dictionary!" was an ironic phrase I often heard in grammar school.
"Grammar School," of course, is what they called it in my grandfather's day, at the end of which a boy could leave school for good without ever having learned to 'speak educated'. By my time, as just the first stage in a long educational career, it was then called 'elementary school,' the early years of which were referred to as the 'primary grades.'

All of these educational modifiers are essentially Latin words--as is 'educational' itself. What does that tell you? It tells you that Latin originally had a tyrannical grip on the education of the youngest speakers of the English language. And, as it turns out, English grammar rules were written by men whose education had been in Latin. So it was that the English language was forced to obey the grammatical conventions of a foreign language. And thus the word 'ain't' was banished from the dictionary.

Today, I'm not all that in tune with what goes on in elementary schools (the latter grades of which have been moved to that new invention--with an English name, no less--of 'middle school'). So I don't know if children are still being told that "ain't ain't in the dictionary." But the fact is, it now is. At least in the adult dictionaries, which of course contain a whole lot of words that children use, but aren't in the junior dictionaries. And despite generations of schoolmarms attempting to suppress its use, ain't has continued to grow and thrive. A computer search for the string "If it isn't broke" brought up 29,000 hits; but "If it ain't broke" resulted in 510,000. "If it is not broken" brought forth a paltry 3770. This despite the fact that ain't didn't originally exist as a colloquial contraction for 'is not', but for 'am not'. And, being forbidden to use ain't, schoolchildren end up using the grammatically incorrect but socially acceptable contraction aren't instead.

So, the attempt to suppress the only legitimate contraction for a very common verb form only caused it to go underground, where it spawned an innumerable corpus of uses, including its Black English usage as a contraction of 'did not' and 'have not'.

Well, for the first time in the history of American English, we have a President with close family members who actually speak Black English. And, having used the word ain't as a scripted colloquialism during a campaign speech, President Obama will hopefully ensure that the Department of Education under his oversight will finally ennoble this word with a place in the education of all young Americans--if not in all their dictionaries.

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