“I Ain’t Got No Money,” Part One: “Ain’t” Ain’t a Word–or Is It?

Okay, I can feel you cringing. “Ain’t” isn’t a word and “ain’t got no” is a double negative, and neither is grammatically correct, right?

Not so fast, little buckaroos.

First, let’s get one thing straight: Much of what your kindly English teachers taught you as “grammar” was in fact “usage,” a completely different breed of cat. To most linguists, grammar is a description of how people do talk, not a proscription of how they should talk. They tend to view any book in which an author tells people how to speak “correctly” as having little justification beyond the author’s own personal tastes.

So. Is “ain’t” a real word? Absolutely. We’ve been taught that its usage is incorrect, which again is a matter of personal taste, but it is a perfectly good word having a number of useful meanings: “am not,” “are not,” “is not,” “have not,” “has not,” “does not,” and, as in the example “I ain’t got no money,” “do not.”

As early as 1706 “ain’t” existed as a grammatically proper contraction of “am not.” It was originally written and pronounced “amn’t,” but people found that saying the “m” and “n” back-to-back was awkward. The “n” won out over the “m,” and the word became “an’t.” Dialectical variations and normal changes in language transformed the “short a” sound into “long a.” The “i” was added to “an’t” to reflect its pronunciation: “ain’t.” It followed a similar path with “aren’t”: “aren’t” to “an’t” to “ain’t.”

The path from “is not” to “ain’t” was a bit more circuitous. In some British dialects, today as in the past, the phrase “isn’t it” is often pronounced “i’n’it,” or “innit.” Dialectical variations of that were “ernit,” and eventually “ainit.” Thus, “isn’t it” became, in some dialects, “ain’t it.” Since “ain’t” was substituting for “isn’t” in the phrase “ain’t it,” it came to replace “isn’t” in other phrases as well.

The journey from “has not” and “have not” is simpler. The “ha-” is pronounced with a “long a” in some circumstances. For example, the British word “halfpenny.” Both “halfpenny” and its contraction “ha’penny” are pronounced “hay penny.” The same thing happened when “have not” and “has not” were originally shortened to “ha’n’t.” It was pronounced “hain’t.” In some dialects, particularly Cockney, the initial “h” is dropped from words. Hence, “hain’t” became “ain’t.” (BTW, a dislike for Cockney by some snooty scholars is really what got “ain’t” booted from the pantheon of proper usage.)

It is unclear how “does not” and “do not” became “ain’t.” Perhaps by way of synonym. “I haven’t got money” means the same as “I don’t have money.”

When you think about it, “ain’t” is really quite a handy word, especially with those pesky “be” verbs. If one follows the rules we were taught, then “I am not,” but “you, we, and they are not” and he, she, it, Dick, Sally, and Jane (individually, not collectivewly) “is not.” But wait, there’s more. “I, you, we, they, and Dick, Sally, and Jane (collectively) have not,” while “he, she, it, Dick, Sally, and Jane has not.” Why all the bother? Whether the verb is am, are, is, have, or has (and sometimes do or does), and the noun is singular or plural, “ain’t” works with all of them.

Next: those dreaded double negatives.

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