A Few More Words About “Ain’t”

In my previous posting (and the third in sequence about the problematic usages of the contracted form “ain’t”)  we mainly considered how the movement from the largely “prescriptive” principle underlying the practice of lexicography to a largely “descriptive” principle and practice affected the notes on usage in the most prominent published dictionaries,  from  Webster’s New International Dictionary,  Second Edition, to the most recent of major American English dictionaries,  The American Heritage Dictionary,  which in essence outlawed the use of “ain’t” in both educated speech (save when being jocular or self-conscious) and writing.

Doing this did not,  however, go so far as to excite the publishers of American English music lyrics to excise all instances of “ain’t” and to replace them with other, “standard” forms.  Thus,  the popular song from the earlier part of the last century,  “Shine On,  Harvest Moon,” would perhaps need some reconsideration for its use of “ain’t” in at least one of its lines.

How now are we to change the titles and the memorable catalogue of performances and recordings of such classics as the Gershwins’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from the great folk opera Porgy and Bess) ?  Or the loving and heartfelt tribute,  “Ain’t She Sweet?”–music by father Milton Ager (with lyrics by Jack Yellen)–addressed to his young daughter Shana Ager, later to become political pundit Shana Alexander? And how could Louis Jordan’s unforgettable “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” be tricked out in new clothes?  (It was perhaps adapted and performed most memorably in a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon).

So what is the status of “ain’t” in American usage today?  Interestingly,  it has become a familiar staple of at least the spoken street language of rap and hip hop,  and its usage in the street culture (colloquially,  “the hood”)  of black Americans,  can be traced from the earliest serious attempts to legitimize “Black English” to the political and educational brouhaha excited by the arguments in Los Angeles especially to set “ebonics” (a coined blend word combining “ebony” and “phonics”) alongside traditional and established approaches to reading and writing  in the English curriculum of the entire school system–as equally valid.  That movement had serious intellectual and educational deficiencies, and fortunately these were quite quickly exposed and deposed.

So where are we today?  The acronym AAVE (for “African American Vernacular English”) has replaced in respectable circles both “Black English” and  “Ebonics” as the preferred term. It seems now certain that this dialect has free play in speech among those wishing, or able, to use it and no other.  And that use should not be condemned; it is an essential part of a cultural psyche.  And it should also be said that whatever we call the distinctive language used in the street culture of the African American,  it is, as with Standard American English,  rule governed (for a quick lesson here, check out the Wikipedia entry) and as effective and creative in expression as any other established language.

The drawback is, however, this:  the language of any street culture is not what is acceptable in the boardroom, the classroom, the laboratory,  the agency offices, or the newsroom.

It is morever now quite obvious that depriving a black child or any child in America from being able to learn to read, write, and, yes, speak SAE (Standard American English) is leaving that child so far behind in his or her potential for most careers that he or she will be permanently displaced or handicapped.  It would be an educational tsunami if such a diversionary emphasis in education as discussed here would either be ignored or be allowed to sweep out to sea its innocent victims.



2 Responses to “A Few More Words About “Ain’t””

  1. Tammy Stephens Says:

    “The drawback is, however, this: the language of any street culture is not what is acceptable in the boardroom, the classroom, the laboratory, the agency offices, or the newsroom.”

    I agree. Don’t forget about our country boy bloggers who also have a language of their own.

  2. Macky Myers Says:

    I am reminded of the Irish playright and Nobel Prize for Literature winner George Bernard Shaw who wrote a play PYGMALLION about a common cockney flower girl. In the play, Professor Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonal Pickering that he can take a common Cockney girl and teach her the arts of proper language and social class.

    My point is many of have a language of culture (upbringing) and a language of the work world–the formal and the informal, if you will. To Liza Dolittle in Shaw’s play, language was on a formal level when in the presence of Professor Higgins; less so when with her family and friends.

    In a global society where the Internet is predominately in English, many societies are now dealing with learning English and preserving culture at the same time. China is clearly a second language country making such a transition since the inception of teaching English at every level of education.

    To some extent, “ain’t” has found its way into certain cultures. If one is of white, Anglo-Saxon extraction, then it’s less likely “ain’t” is part of the culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: