Tag Archives: English language

Why aren’t I instead of amn’t I?


Why don’t we say “amn’t I” instead of “aren’t I”? If we say “am I” why don’t we say “amn’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 doesn’t seem right, at least not if we learn that the correct form for the first person is “am”.
Why don’t we use amn’t I instead? This made me curious to look up if this form was ever used and why aren’t I is the current, accepted form instead.

The contraction of I am not in questions is not a logic form for English learners – and teachers: the form I’m not should be Amn’t I ? (with postposition of “I”) in a question.

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’tWe 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…


Why reading aloud is important: a challenge with English

In addition to my post about the importance of reading aloud, I would like to make an example for English. Every non-native speaker will struggle with the pronunciation of English and sooner or later will understand that English is not an easy language. Maybe the grammar is easier than in other languages – it obviously depends on which other languages you already know – but the pronunciation is a challenge for us and apparently for some English native speakers too: they say that “if you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world”. – I still struggle with some (better: several) words and the rhyme helped me several times…

This is a poem the Dutch teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946), known as “Charivarius”, published in his book about the English pronunciation “Drop Your Foreign Accent: Engelsche uitspraakoefeningen” in 1920 with the title “Chaos” (later “The Chaos”). The poem had a length of 292 verses when Trenité died in 1944 and more were added later. It now contains 800 of the worst irregularities of English pronunciation.

English: pronunciation phonogram

English: pronunciation phonogram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Chaos
by G. Nolst Trenite’ a.k.a. “Charivarius” 1870 – 1946


Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear,
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.
Exiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing.
Thames, examining, combining
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war, and far.
From “desire”: desirable–admirable from “admire.”
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier.
Chatham, brougham, renown, but known.
Knowledge, done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone. Balmoral.
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel,
Gertrude, German, wind, and mind.
Scene, Melpomene, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rime with “darky.”
Viscous, Viscount, load, and broad.
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s O.K.,
When you say correctly: croquet.
Rounded, wounded, grieve, and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive, and live,
Liberty, library, heave, and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police, and lice.
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label,
Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal.
Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit,
Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it.”
But it is not hard to tell,
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, and chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,
Ivy, privy, famous, clamour
And enamour rime with hammer.
Pussy, hussy, and possess,
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants.
Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rime with anger.
Neither does devour with clangour.
Soul, but foul and gaunt but aunt.
Font, front, won’t, want, grand, and grant.
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger.
And then: singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.
Query does not rime with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post; and doth, cloth, loth;
Job, Job; blossom, bosom, oath.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual.
Seat, sweat; chaste, caste; Leigh, eight, height;
Put, nut; granite, and unite.
Reefer does not rime with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, Senate, but sedate.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific,
Tour, but our and succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria,
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay.
Say aver, but ever, fever.
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess–it is not safe:
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph.
Heron, granary, canary,
Crevice and device, and eyrie,
Face but preface, but efface,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust, and scour, but scourging,
Ear but earn, and wear and bear
Do not rime with here, but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk, and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation–think of psyche–!
Is a paling, stout and spikey,
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing “groats” and saying “grits”?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel,
Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict, and indict!
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally: which rimes with “enough”
Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?
Hiccough has the sound of “cup.”
My advice is–give it up!


And if you don’t want to give up, here’s a teacher reading it for (or with?) you.

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Some similarities between German and Dutch

Learing a new language is always very exciting. Especially when the new language we’re learning is similar to one we already know. These similarities can be at different levels (phonetical, lexical, syntactical etc.).

The Dutch language belongs to the westgerman branch of the indoeuropean languages and is actually close to German (and Swissgerman).

The simplified relation between the languages ...

The simplified relation between the languages Dutch, English and German. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many foreigners the pronunciations of “Scheveningen” or “Gouda” are a challenge. It’s especially the way the <ch> and the intervocalic <g> is pronounced that creates some articulatory problems. For Swissgermans the voiceless velar fricative <g> [x] or [ɣ] for the <ch> or the uvular fricative [χ] are very well known. They sound similar to the German in “ach”, “Bach”, “Fach” etc.. Therefore this is not something Germans or Swissgermans would find difficult to pronounce. In the southern Dutch dialects these sounds are softer and <g> and <ch> represent the palatal fricatives ([ʝ] and [ç]).

Something I personally found important to learn are the false cognates or false friends. People already fluent in German when learning Dutch, need to be aware of words that are phonetically similar and sometimes even have similar roots but are different in meanings:

The Dutch aandacht means “Aufmerksamkeit” (attention) in German, and the German “Andacht” means “devotion”.

The zetel is a seat and not a saddle (German “Sattel”), the winkel is a shop (“Laden”) and not an angle, like in German.

With vaart you don’t design the journey or trip (“Fahrt”), but only boat trip and varen refers to the movement of ships only.

Tot is not “tot” (dead) but only means “until” and is pronounced with a short /o/ (whereas the german “tot” has a long one /o:/.

A postbus is not a public means of transportation but a P.O. box (“Postfach”).

The kwartier is not a quarter or accomodation (germ.”Quartier”) but defines a quarter of an hour; and it’s often used in its diminutive form kwartiertje.

Glazuur has nothing to do with baking (germ.”Glasur”; icing) but is dental enamel (“Zahnschmelz”).

Blaffen does not mean to snap at someone, like the German “anblaffen” but the barking of the dog. In German this way to snap is comparable to the barking of a dog though and both words have the same etymon. When a Dutch says that he’s going to call you on the phone, i.e. bellen (ik ga je bellen), which is the abbreviated form for opbellen, or ring at your door, a German would think that this person would bark at him (germ. bellen). For an English speaking person it doesn’t seem too weird, as the English bell (noun) is producing a similar sound although the English verb to bell has a different meaning i.e. the semantic fields for the Dutch bell and the English one are slightly different.

The sale signs for houses and flats puzzle every German speaking person who visits the Netherlands for the first time: te huur (which means “to rent”) seems very similar “to whore” (“huren” in German), but once you learn that <uu> is pronounced like [] you’ll get over it. A similar misunderstanding could occur with the verkocht sign, when a property is sold, since it really sounds like the word for “overcooked” in German (“verkocht”).

Te huur in Huizen

Te huur in Huizen (Photo credit: CorporatieNL)

Verkocht onder voorbehoud

Verkocht onder voorbehoud (Photo credit: the_riel_thing)

What were the analogies or similarities you found between German and Dutch? Or another language you know and Dutch?

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Is “saudade” really untranslatable?

The conventional wisdom is that the Portuguese term saudade doesn’t have an equivalent in any other language. But according to an entry in wikipedia, there are quasy-synonyms in several languages.

Saudade is…

According to the Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa, saudade can be described as follows (my translation):

“A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.”

Depending on the context, saudade can relate to the feeling of nostalgia or melancholy (melancolia in Portuguese), in which one feels an interior satisfaction because it is impossible to find something, but one never stops thinking that one is searching for it. It is an incompleteness that one unconsciously wants to never completely resolve.

For further information about this term, please find my other posts about it here and here.


I list the languages  of the entry in wikipedia in alphabetical order, but a parental order among the languages would have been possible too (i.e. the Bosnian term is similar to an Arabic and Turkish term, but with different meainings. You’ll find them all listed separately).


In Albanian we can find a direct translation of saudade in the word mall. It encompasses feelings of passionate longing, sadness, and at the same time an undefined laughter from the same source. Other variations which give different nuances to this word are: përmallim, përmallje, etc.


In Arabic, the word وجد (wajd) means a state of transparent sadness caused by the memory of a loved one who is not near; it is widely used in ancient Arabic poetry to describe the state of the lover’s heart as he or she remembers the long-gone love. It is a mixed emotion of sadness for the loss, and happiness for having loved that person.


In Armenian, saudade is represented by “karot” (I’m sorry, I couldn’t find the right font to write the armenian term), which describes the deep feeling of missing of something or somebody.


The Bosnian language has a term for the same type of feeling, sevdah, which comes from the Turkish term sevda (‘love’) via Arabic sawda (‘black’), which in Turkish means “black bile.” In Bosnian language, the term sevdah represents pain and longing for a loved one. Sevdah or sevdalinke (pl) is also a genre of traditional music originating from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s a singing about bitterness, sadness, longing and love pain. These songs are very melancholic, emotionally charged and sung with passion and fervor.


In English, the verb “to pine” or ” to long” for somebody, something or some place that you miss deeply, to wish you could be there or have it again. It’s a nostalgic yearning for something that may no longer exist.


In the Finnish language the term kaiho seems to correspond very closely to saudade. It “means a state of involuntary solitude in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unattainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain”. Curiously, the sentiment of kaiho is central to the Finnish tango. Kaiho has also religious connotations in Finland, “since the large Lutheran sect called the Awakening (Finnish herännäiset, or körttiläiset more familiarly) consider central to their faith a certain kaiho towards Zion”. Saudade does not involve tediousness. The feeling of saudade rather accentuates itself: “the more one thinks about the loved person or object, the more one feels saudade.”


Saudade relates to the French regret, in which one feels a hard sentiment, but in a nostalgic sense (cfr. in some dictionnaries saudade is described as “sentiment de nostalgie, du regret mélancolique“).

(La Mélancolie, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532)


I would like to add another term to the wikipedia list. The Galician morriña. It describes a feeling towards the place/country we come from (“Heimweh” in German), which is very melancholic. This term entered into the Spanish language through the Gallego: “Se utiliza en español en general para describir un sentimiento de tristeza por la lejanía del lugar de donde procede uno y de aquellas cosas, objetos y situaciones que lo evocan.”


One translation of saudade into German is Wehmut (in Dutch weemoed), a form of nostalgia; or Weltschmerz, which is the “general pain caused by an imperfect state of being or state of the world”. Also Sehnsucht comes pretty close to the meaning of saudade. It’s generally translated with “yearning” or “craving” and describes a deep, bittersweet sense of something lost, missing, or unattainable. Sehnsucht can also have a more positive, goal-oriented connotation; “an “aspirational saudade” that may drive one to reclaim, pursue or define the absent something”.


The Greek word closest to saudade is νοσταλγία (“nostalgia”). Nostalgia also appears in the Portuguese language as in the many other languages with an Indo-European origin, bearing the same meaning of the Greek word νοσταλγία. There is yet another word that, like saudade, has no immediate translation in English: λαχτάρα (lakhtara). This word encompasses sadness, longing and hope, as does the term saudade.


In Hebrew, saudade can be translated by Ergah ערגה, which means yearning/longing/desire coupled with deep sadness.


The closest word to saudade in Indonesian is galau. It describes a sad feeling or mood that is felt when we miss someone. It is apparently used by the Indonesian youth today [it would be great to have some feedback about this, maybe with some context of its use] and, although the word itself may be caused by various things – such as failing an exam – the most common causes are love-related. The person feeling galau is nostalgic as well. “It can last for hours, but it is almost always temporary.”


In Japan, saudade expresses a concept similar to the Japanese word natsukashii. Although commonly translated as “dear, beloved, or sweet,” “in modern conversational Japanese natsukashii can be used to express a longing for the past.” “It connotes both happiness for the fondness of that memory and goodness of that time, as well as sadness that it is no longer. It is an adjective for which there is no fitting English translation. It can also mean “sentimental,” and is a wistful emotion. The character used to write natsukashii can also be read as futokoro 懐 [ふところ] and means “bosom,” referring to the depth and intensity of this emotion that can even be experienced as a physical feeling or pang in one’s chest—a broken heart or a heart feeling moved.”


In Korean, keurium (그리움) is probably closest to saudade. “It reflects a yearning for anything that has left a deep impression in the heart—a memory, a place, a person, etc.”


In Mongolian, betgerekh (бэтгэрэх) is closest to saudade as it describes the feeling of missing something or someone very deeply. It seems that this term is also used to determine a mental illness.


In the Romanian language, the word dor bears a close meaning to saudade. It means “longing, desire, wanting something” and can also stand for “love” or “desire”, “having a derivation in the noun dorinţă and the verb dori, both of them being translated usually by “wish” and “to wish”.”


The Slovenian language has many words espressing the feeling of “longing”: hrepeneti, koprneti, pogrešati (literally “to miss someone”), nostalgija, melanholija. The verb koprneti (“to long, yearn or languish for someone or something”) and thereof derived noun koprnenje  (“yearning”) are the closest translations to saudade.


Saudade is often related to the Spanish añorar, which is defined by the Real Academia Española as “remembering [or feeling] with sadness the absence, deprivation or loss of someone or something loved”.

Llamamos saudade a un sentimiento de melancolía motivado por la ausencia de alguien o de alguna cosa, de la lejanía de un lugar, o de la falta de ciertas experiencias ya vividas. Frecuentemente en plural, la palabra se usa en varias situaciones:

– estar com saudades de alguém que vive longe (echar en falta a alguien que vive lejos)

sentir saudades das ruas da cidade natal(echar en falta las calles de la ciudad natal)

sentir saudades dos tempos de faculdade (echar en falta los tiempos de la universidad)


The term can also translate into the Spanish expression echar de menos, or extrañar—roughly equivalent to the Portuguese ter saudades: “missing something or someone”: ter saudades de comer uma boa feijoada (echar en falta comer una buena feijoada)


In wikipedia we can find that “in Tamil, a similar feeling of love-sickness is expressed by the word pasalai.” But I found this description of the term pasalai: Female hysteria (!) “includes symptoms of  faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.

It would be great to have some feedback about the meaning and the use of this term in modern (and ancient) Tamil.


In Turkish, the feeling of saudade is somewhat similar to hüzün, which describe a melancholic feeling popular in art and culture “following the fall of a great empire”. However, hüzün is closer to melancholy and depression in that it is associated with a sense of failure in life and lack of initiative.


Saudade is said to be the only exact equivalent of the Welsh hiraeth and the Cornish hireth. It connotes “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”. It is the mix of the longing/yearning/nostalgia/wistfulness feeling.

In wikipedia is also mentioned the Torlak dialect of Bulgarian, “spoken today in the easternmost part of Serbia and the remote southern mountains of Kosovo”. “There is an expression which corresponds more closely to the Japanese and Greek examples, but can be compared to saudade in the broader sense of longing for the past. It is жал за младос(т) / žal za mlados(t) i.e., “yearning for one’s youth.” [Since the dialect has not been standardised as a written language it has various forms]. The term and the concept have been popularised in standard Serbian through short prose and plays by the fin-de-siècle writer Borisav Stanković born in Vranje .

Finally, it is interesting to see that saudade can be found also in Esperanto. It borrows the word directly, changing the spelling to accommodate Esperanto grammar, as saŭdado.


I presume that there are more languages and dialects to be added to this list and all the terms would need a proper linguistical explanation (context of use etc.). I’m not proficient in (all) the languages listed, therefore I would be very thankful for any comment at the end of the post that could help to know more about those terms in the different languages. – Thank you very much in advance!

What I found very interesting in this tour d’horizon is, that the feeling of saudade, expressed by other terms, inspires musicians in several cultures and that it’s closely related to the general sentiment of fin-de-siècle (but this will be the topic for another post).