Why don’t we say “amn’t I” instead of “aren’t I”? Isn’t “aren’t I” grammatically incorrect? – I recently had a long discussion with my son about the fact that using aren’t I is not grammatically correct, at least not from a historical point of view, and that one should use amn’t I instead. My inner historical linguist took over and brought me to write this down.
The contraction of I am not in questions is not a logic form for English learners – and teachers. Why don’t we say “amn’t I” as the the negative form? If in declarative sentences we use the standard form I am not and in questions am I not, and in declarative case, the standard contraction is I’m not, so why don’t we apply this in questions where speakers feel the need for a negative contraction like in “isn’t it” or “aren’t they”?
The contraction ain’t seems to stand for am not and is attested since 1618 (Merriam-Webster). As the combination of two nasal consonants “m-n” is disfavoured by English speakers, the “m” of amn’t was elided, i.e. one of the nasal sounds was dropped to simplify the pronunciation: this reflected in writing with the form an’t. An’t first appears in the work of English Restoration playwrights (cfr. Merriam-Webster) and in 1695 an’t was used as a contraction of am not in William Congreve’s play Love for Love: “I can hear you farther off, I an’t deaf”, but an’t also appears as a contraction of “are not” in Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1676): “Hart thee shoemaker! These shoes an’t ugly, but they don’t fit me”.
Interestingly, the contracted form aren’t for are not appeared in 1675. – In non-rhotic dialects, aren’t lost its “r” sound, and began to be pronounced as an’t.
Apparently, during that period, the form an’t was used for the 1rst singular and 1rst plural form: I am not/ I amn’t = I an’t and We aren’t = We an’t.
An’t for is not
An’t for is not may have developed independently from its use for am not and are not.
Just to complicate it a bit more: isn’t was sometimes written as in’t or en’t, which could have changed into an’t. “An’t for is not may have filled a gap as an extension of the already-used conjugations for to be not: Jonathan Swift used an’t to mean is not in Letter 19 of his Journal to Stella (1710–13): It an’t my fault, ’tis Patrick’s fault; pray now don’t blame Presto.”
From an’t to ain’t
The “a” in an’t must have been a long “a” and was written as ain’t since 1749– with the epenthetic “i”.
Interestingly, when ain’t appeared, an’t was already used for am not, are not, and is not.
Therefore, an’t and ain’t coexisted as written forms well into the nineteenth century:
Charles Dickens used the terms interchangeably, as in Chapter 13, Book the Second of Little Dorrit (1857): “‘I guessed it was you, Mr Pancks,” said she, ‘for it’s quite your regular night; ain’t it? … An’t it gratifying, Mr Pancks, though; really?'”.
In the English lawyer William Hickey‘s memoirs (1808–1810), ain’t appears as a contraction of aren’t; “thank God we’re all alive, ain’t we…”
We can find the contraction ain’t for “am not”
In dialects or regional variants…
I was positively surprised when I heared a Scottish friend use amn’t once in a question and found out that it was quite common. In fact:
The contraction amn’t is a standard contraction of am not in some dialects of mainly Hiberno-English (Irish English) and Scottish English. In Hiberno-English the question form (amn’t I?) is used more frequently than the declarative I amn’t. (The standard I’m not is available as an alternative to I amn’t in both Scottish English and Hiberno-English.) An example appears in Oliver St. John Gogarty‘s impious poem The Ballad of Japing Jesus: “If anyone thinks that I amn’t divine, / He gets no free drinks when I’m making the wine”. These lines are quoted in James Joyce‘s Ulysses, which also contains other examples: “Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl?” (spoken by Cissy Caffrey to Leopold Bloom in Chapter 15).
The more standardized contraction aren’t seems to fill in the “amn’t gap” in questions: Aren’t I lucky to have you around? Although this form is universally used by Standard English speakers today, it was considered “illiterate” by some twentieth-century writers.
But how could amn’t become aren’t?
The form am not contracted into amn’t which, to simplify the pronunciation, became an’t. All happened because in non-rhotic* dialects, aren’t and the pronunciation of an’t are homophones, i.e. both are pronounced without the “r”. So it might be the case of a hypercorrection from non-rhotic dialect speakers that the form aren’t is used instead of an’t: thinking that where there isn’t a “r” we should insert one, people may have started to insert a “r” into an’t which lead to arn’t and by simplifying the pronunciation with an epenthetic e: aren’t, which, besides, already exists as form of the 2nd singular and plural forms of the verb to be and doesn’t sound “wrong”.
The spelling of “aren’t I” started to replace “an’t I” in the early 20th century, and some first examples of aren’t I for am I not appear already in the first half of the 19th century in St Martin’s Day from Holland-tide by Gerald Griffin in 1827: “aren’t I listening; and isn’t it only the breeze that’s blowing the sheets and halliards about?”
Today, the grammatical am I not? sounds stilted, ain’t I? is considered substandard and aren’t I ? is the standard solution adopted in practice by most speakers and taught in school.
*In non-rhotic dialects, the historical /r/ has been lost except before vowels; they include all the dialects of England—except the South West, the southern West Midlands, and parts of West Lancashire—as well as the English dialects of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some parts of the southern and eastern coastal United States.
More posts about historical linguistics will follow soon – also about Italian, French, German…