July 28, 2004

That's not how that ... is it?

Mark narrowly beat me to the punch in commenting on Trevor at Kaleboel's response to my post yesterday about the "Ain't how that God planned it?" lyric. I'm gonna have to (respectfully) go ahead and sort of disagree with Mark; I'm not so sure about the sensibility of Trevor's story.

Trevor writes:

I reckon that when Chuck D of Public Enemy sings
Ain't how that God planned it?
he is using "how that" where standard English speakers would use "how", and that the pronoun "that" is assumed in the "ain't" or what precedes it.

If I understand Trevor correctly -- and I think I do; Mark seems to have arrived at the same understanding -- he is saying that "how that" (wh-comp) in Chuck D.'s speech is "how" (wh alone) in standard English, and that there is an implicit pronominal subject of "ain't" (coincidentally, I assume, also "that"). Translating to standard English, then, we get:

Ain't (um, I mean, Isn't) that how God planned it?

Hmm. Now, I ain't no syntactician, but I'm suspicious of Trevor's wh-comp analysis of the "how that" in this case as well as of his assertion that there is an implicit-yet-unexpressed pronominal subject in this question.

Take the wh-comp analysis of "how that" first. In defense of this analysis, Trevor cites a case of "how that" that is undoubtedly wh-comp, and implies that he has found plenty more such examples:

The "how that"/"how" swap turns up in a variety of sources, including in 1513 in Douglas's Æneis (OED), where the "that" clearly does not refer to one particular (manifestation of) Aeneas:
How that Eneas socht ansueir at Apollyne

I'm not saying that Chuck D.'s speech couldn't have descended directly from the speech/writing of a 16th Century Scottish poet, or from the speech of the writers of any of the other 282 search results for "how that" in the OED quotations for that matter, though we still need to remove all the cases in which the "that" is clearly (part of) the subject of the clause following the "how". But if you just listen closely, Chuck D. pronounces "that" with a completely unreduced vowel; it's clearly [ðætˀ], not [ðǝtˀ]. In contemporary English, the complementizer "that" is only pronounced with an unreduced vowel in hyper-careful speech (if ever); I think we can all agree that Chuck D. is not being -- and has no reason to be -- hyper-careful in this case.

Now consider Trevor's implicit-subject assertion. Are inverted subjects dropped in (non-standard or standard) English? Certainly not in my dialect:

  1. That ain't how God planned it.   →   ø Ain't how God planned it.
  2. Ain't that how God planned it?   →   *Ain't ø how God planned it?

(Mark expresses similar skepticism about this point, too.)

These arguments notwithstanding, it just seems like a striking coincidence that these two things should go together in this case. Of course, Mark and I could just be misunderstanding Trevor after all. I hope he says more about it on his blog.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 28, 2004 05:10 PM