Ain’t IS a word
Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Linguistic Variety
It’s the first day of sixth grade and so obviously, it’s time to assert my dominance as the smartest kid in the class before anyone else can take the throne. Someone makes the dire mistake of uttering a grammatically incorrect statement within earshot of me, the queen of the English language, and I have to squeeze my lips together to avoid saying “Ain’t ain’t a word!” in a smug, singsong voice as only a sixth grader can.
I bet you’re wondering who this story is about.
I’m the smug, grammar dictator that had read a bunch of 12th-grade level books and passed them on Accelerated Reader so thought I was the god of literature.
I was a 5’ nothing, pigtailed bucktoothed académie anglaise with an iron grip on what was linguistically copacetic, and what was a marker of an inferior human who couldn’t even master the language we were all born with.
I was a dick, and I was wrong.
At this point in my life, it’s embarrassing yet gratifying to see the ways I’ve changed in my thinking since I was a kid and regularly ate flavored chapsticks for the taste and to make sure my insides didn’t get raw.
My thinking was understandable and conditioned from an early age. The way we teach language in schools plays to the tendency of small children to be little fascists. Before a child can understand the variability of something, she needs to know the general rule for it.
The way we get children to be able to focus and internalize these rules is to offer no exceptions.
I don’t know much about children’s development, but I do know that kids love things that are as black and white as they come.
I was watching Paw Patrol with a girl I babysit, and I was struck by how little most of the dogs on the squad actually did. They all had jobs, technically, but it really was just like, a police dog and a fire dog doing everything. Sometimes, it seemed that the missions the dogs’ had were totally a misuse of public funds and probably could have worked themselves out anyway.
Later, she played in a similar way, getting toy trucks stuck “in the mud” and then amassing a huge force of state employees to tow them out in an overly complicated manner. Why did they even need the Paw Patrol? The guy stuck in the mud was pretty much already out of the mud when Paw Patrol got there. Is this show supposed to teach about civic duty or a massive, bloated police force in a town with no crime?
I’m going too far into this, but the message is that children love things that are a certain way for a certain reason, and they don’t typically think about why that is, or who is in charge of making it so.
Another kid I watch insists that I make him warm milk in the microwave, but his microwave is in Dutch and I don’t know how to use it, so I secretly make it on the stove and pretend to take it out of his complicated, space-age microwave. He can’t tell the difference, and unless he catches me, he’s blissfully happy. If it were me, you bet I’d watch every step to be sure it was done right.
That’s one of the joys of being a child and not a distrustful, suspicious adult.
Even though being a distrustful adult can be super exhausting, we also get to investigate and ask questions about things we thought were for sure already figured out.
Language is the framework for the way we conceptualize our lives and worlds around us, and it can be difficult to question something so basic as what you were taught about language.
In the 1990’s, public schools in Oakland proposed a radical policy change concerning the usage of African American English, or AAE in schools. This was met with mass outrage and worries about the decay of the English language. What detractors didn’t know, however, was that African American English is a rule-governed dialect, not just bad English. What we see often even today in the US is that General American English, what newscasters and celebrities typically speak, is prioritized as the most correct way to speak.
This is largely an arbitrary distinction.
We see that in cultures, the language that people in power speak is typically lauded as the “correct” way to speak and all other ways are denigrated. In England, the Queen’s English was seen as proper, while working-class dialects were slang and incorrect.
Take this information to other dominant culture conventions like standardized spelling, or the usage of the word “ain’t” as a negative, and you’ll realize that the language you learned in elementary is a pared-down, oversimplified version of all the richness that English provides, scaled to make sense to a child’s fascist, unyielding sense of right and wrong.
Just like your understanding of morals, ethics, human behavior, your own body has changed and become much more nuanced as you’ve gotten older, allow your perception of the “rightness” and “wrongness” of certain linguistic forms to grow, as well.
Take some time and learn about the rules of different varieties of English. They all have their own sounds and rules for verbs so there’s a lot to read. If you still are worried about the state of the English language and that people don’t know the correct version of “there/their/they’re”, remember that someone’s done all the worrying centuries before you and you can just relax.
“The total neglect of this art [speaking] has been productive of the worst consequences…in the conduct of all affairs ecclesiastical and civil, in church, in parliament, courts of justice…the wretched state of elocution is apparent to persons of any discernment and taste… if something is not done to stop this growing evil …English is likely to become a mere jargon, which every one may pronounce as he pleases.” — Thomas Sheridan, 1780