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Q From Fred A Roth, Idaho; a related question came from Shailesh Ramanuj, India: Why don’t we say I amn’t? All the other personal pronouns have two contracted forms that can be used in present-tense negative constructions, such as we’re not or we aren’t. The first person singular, however, has only one — I’m not. What happened to I amn’t?

A This is a surprisingly complicated question. First off, amn’t (which is short for am not) may be unfamiliar to most of us, but it isn’t entirely unknown, though it's almost exclusively found in the inverted form amn’t I. It’s used in Scotland and Ireland, for example. Why the rest of us don’t is a result of shifts in pronunciation that were associated with a loss of favour generations ago.

Amn’t has a long recorded history — the Oxford English Dictionary has an example from a magazine called The Athenian Gazette in 1691, but it was almost certainly known earlier, as many other shortened forms, such as can’t, don’t and shan’t, seem to have arrived in the language around 1600. But it was never as popular as another contraction, an’t. This was probably preferred because speakers disliked putting an m and an n together in one syllable. One of the two was elided away (as happened with the n in column, for example). In this case I’d guess that the n was kept because it matched the other short forms and also signalled negative intent.

An’t used to be widely acceptable:

You need not sit so near one, if you have anything to say. I can hear you farther off, I an’t deaf.

Love for Love, by William Congreve, 1695.]

An’t was also used in place of are not and is not around the same time. Jonathan Swift, later a severe critic of abbreviated forms, included it in his Journal to Stella of 1710: “An’t you an impudent slut?” Four years earlier, Edward Ward wrote in Hudibras Redivivus, “But if your Eyes a’n’t quick of Motion”, adding an extra apostrophe to show how he thought the contraction was formed. It stayed in the language until the nineteenth century:

“An’t he beautiful, John? Don’t he look precious in his sleep?” “Very precious,” said John. “Very much so. He generally IS asleep, an’t he?”

The Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens, 1845.

The way that a was pronounced in these forms wasn’t always as we might say it today. Sometimes it was more like “ay”. The result was that an’t began to be spelled ain’t.

Early on, ain’t was as respectable as an’t, as it still is in some language communities, such as Black American English, and humorously in some fixed phrases (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). But the prescriptive grammar chaps got at it in the eighteenth century, objecting to it as a vulgar corruption, and writers of the next century and after were even more vociferous in their condemnation. Much of it was directed at the use of ain’t he and ain’t they rather than ain’t I (Eric Partridge wrote that using ain’t for isn’t was for him “an error so illiterate that I blush to record it”). However, all its uses became equally tainted. The dislike of ain’t rubbed off on an’t, too, which eventually led to its replacement.

There was another pronunciation of an’t, in which the vowel was drawn out and somewhat drawled. Eventually this led to the spelling pronunciation aren’t, with the r silent, a form for which we have little evidence before the twentieth century. It explains why aren’t I exists, which is otherwise a puzzle, since there’s no obvious way that it could have been formed from am I not. Despite dislike of it by some stylists, aren’t I has become accepted in standard English as the successor to an’t and as a respectable alternative to ain’t. But I aren’t was a step too far for people to accept, which is why we have no parallel in the language today to the old I amn’t or I an’t and have to make do just with I’m not.

In 1926, H W Fowler wrote an even-handed comment on these contractions that showed that, for him, an’t wasn’t yet extinct while aren’t I didn’t yet exist:

A(i)n’t is merely colloquial, & as used for isn’t is an uneducated blunder & serves no useful purpose. But it is a pity that a(i)n’t for am not, being a natural contraction & supplying a real want, should shock us as though tarred with the same brush. Though I’m not serves well enough in statements, there is no abbreviation but a(i)n’t I? for am I not? or am not I?; & the shamefaced reluctance with which these full forms are often brought out betrays the speaker’s sneaking affection for the ain’t I that he (or still more she) fears will convict him of low breeding.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H W Fowler, 1926.

Page created 12 Dec. 2009

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Last modified: 12 December 2009.