July 29, 2004

You better focus, cos it ain't no one can quote this

OK, we're having fun now, Eric and Trevor and I. The rest of you can sing along or tune out, your choice. Warning: without the backstory (here, here, here, here, here, here) this might not make sense. In fact, with the backstory... well, anyhow.

There's another couple of possibilities here, both for ain't and for that, in Chuck D.'s puzzling line "Ain't how that God planned it?"

First, ain't. There's some evidence that ain't can be a sort of phrase-initial marker of questions and exclamations:

(link) Ain't I'm a dog, I'm always steppin' around
(link) Ain't this is a great country -- free bologna sandwiches for profaners!!

The first of those is a pretty solid citation, being the from the title and refrain of a popular song, repeated many times in each performance. It might be a joke but it's not a mistake. The second one might be a typo, I admit. This construction -- obviously a reinterpretation of subject-auxiliary inversion -- tends to undermine a half-century of arguments about structure-dependence, but never mind.

As an alternative, I like Trevor's idea -- at least I think it was his idea -- that maybe there's a missing subject before ain't, in a construction like

BAM, I slam cos Lil' Bud is who I am
I guess you noticed but if you haven't noticed
you better focus, cos it ain't no one can quote this
paragraph that I gets ill with
I got the lyrics that them fools can't deal with

There's a famous linguistic example of this construction in Bill Labov's early work, "It ain't no cat can't get in no coop". You can find plenty of examples with a dropped subject, for instance by searching on {"cos ain't no"}: "cos ain't no limitations on the things we do".

And you can find plenty of examples where the predicate is a wh-clause, like

I know it ain't how it
used to be
but I'm not good
at being me

Right, now that. Since God is unique, in the relevant theology, and also invisible, the obvious meanings of the demonstrative (that one not this one, that one I'm pointing at, etc.) don't seem to work, which is why we've been talking about that as a complementizer. But there's another sense for the demonstrative, which the OED glosses as

b. Indicating a person or thing assumed to be known, or to be known to be such as is stated. Often (esp. before a person's name: cf. L. iste) implying censure, dislike, or scorn; but sometimes commendation or admiration.

In this usage, there's no implication that the referenced entity is non-unique or visible:

(link) Man, I really have to get to that Pynchon someday.
(link) Sometimes, when I want to get a little freaky, I turn up some of that Louie Armstrong.

In fact, speaking of Pynchon and Armstrong, this whole thing reminds me of the extended riff in Gravity's Rainbow on the phrase "you never did the Kenosha kid".


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 29, 2004 07:05 AM