July 29, 2004

Ain't I'm a stinkah

I think Mark's onto something when he writes that "ain't can be a sort of phrase-initial marker of questions and exclamations".

(Blah blah blah the obligatory links to previous relevant posts blah blah blah ...)

Mark cites the following examples:

(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!!

Mark notes that the first is a "pretty solid citation" and that the second "might be a typo, I admit". My personal judgment is that the first is awful, but then again I didn't grow up hearing the relevant song. The second I find totally normal. If you follow the link, you'll see that this is the closing comment by a person who claims to have been arrested for holding a sign reading "F.U.G.W." along a Bush motorcade route. I take the comment to be sarcastic -- (and I mean sarcastic sarcastic, not could-care-less sarcastic).

Anyway, I think both examples make perfect sense if you take ain't to be a phrase-initial marker meaning something like "isn't it the case (that)", "don't you agree (that)", "it's clear (that)", or the like -- observe:

It's clear that I'm a dog; I'm always steppin' around.
This is a great country, don't you agree? Free bologna sandwiches for profaners!!

Mark then gives props to Trevor's alternative idea that there's a missing subject of ain't in the lyric we've been debating. Mark cites the following four examples to support this idea; curiously, only one of them (#3) has an actual missing subject.

  1. you better focus, cos it ain't no one can quote this (link)
  2. It ain't no cat can't get in no coop (from "Bill Labov's early work")
  3. cos ain't no limitations on the things we do (link)
  4. I know it ain't how it used to be (link)

All of these cases, including the subjectless #3, are examples of existential sentences. There is used as the subject of an existential sentence in standard English while it is used in most other situations in which a "dummy" or expletive subject is necessary. But in many nonstandard varieties of English, including AAVE, it fulfills both roles. Apparently, so may a null subject -- at least in some circumstances, such as the cos ain't no construction (and I mean "construction" in a relatively neutral sense -- I might have said "frame", but that might open up another can of worms).

(By the way, in case you found the 238 ghits for Mark's suggested {"cos ain't no"} search underwhelming, try adding the 18 for {"coz ain't no"}, the 89 for {"cus ain't no"}, the 533 for {"cuz ain't no"}, and the 3620 for {"cause ain't no"}.)

There's a lot I'm unsure of about the Ain't how that God planned it line, but I'm pretty sure it's not an existential that would thereby license a null subject. So what is it? The mystery remains.

Oh, yeah -- Happy Anniversary, Language Log!

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 29, 2004 10:53 PM