Why Do People Say 'Ain't'?
The fact that ain’t can function as a negated form of be, have, or do has led some to propose (5) that in African American English, ain’t is better analyzed as a single, all-purpose negator, for singular or plural; for first, second, or third person; for present tense and past. However, that 1994 study, by Tracey Weldon, rebuts this claim. In Weldon’s speech samples, when ain’t is a negation for be, it’s always in the present tense. It never fills in for wasn’t or weren’t. The same goes for when ain’t is a negation for have. In Weldon’s samples, and in my corpus searches and personal experience, it always fills in for hasn’t or haven’t, never for hadn’t. For do, Weldon notes, ain’t always functions as a past tense, never a present tense, like the ain’t see in the Brer Rabbit example. For the present tense, she says, don’t is virtually always the preferred contraction in African American English.
However, that was 20 years ago, when the World Wide Web was only a few years old, before Google, and before the easy availability of online language corpora. These days, if you search in the Corpus of Historical American English for examples of ain’t followed by the plain form of a verb, you can see that its frequency jumps in the 2000s with a handful of verbs: know, want, and say. The same search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English brings in almost 200 examples from between 1990 and 2012, like this one from 2008: “I love her, but I ain't wanna get married.” In that example, ain’t is replacing don’t.
Weldon’s study was also published years before the advent of social media, which has vastly increased the amount of informal and spoken English that gets put into searchable text. Today, you can search through archived tweets from Twitter’s seven years of existence, and find example after example of ain’t in place of don’t, like these:
Oh thanks but I ain't want a carmel apple. I want a red candy apple!
I ain't know what to do
I ain't see my boyfriend until AT LEAST next week
Whatever the reason for the widespread disapproval of ain’t, its bad reputation is a fact, so I don’t recommend it for formal writing, except for well-known sayings such as It ain’t over till it’s over, You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and Say it ain’t so. Still, the gradual creeping of ain’t through the negated English auxiliary verbs is fascinating to observe.
This piece was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com.
1. Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman. 2009. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. p. 49.
2. Barbara M. H. Strang. (1970). A History of English. p.151. Cited in Walker 2005.
3. James A. Walker. 2005 The ain’t constraint: Not-contraction in early African American English. Language Variation and Change, 17 (2005), 1–17.
4. Tracey Weldon. (1994). Variability in negation in African American Vernacular English. Language Variation and Change 6:359–397.
5. Charles E. DeBose. (1994). A note on ain’t vs. didn’t negation in African American Vernacular. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 9:127–130. Cited in Walker 2005.