Wednesday, July 16, 2008

English as she is spoke

My pal Kenny blogged the other day about his use of the word "amn't". You can catch the drift (and the ten comments so far) here, where you'll see that in addition to the "speaking properly" question there is a confusion about what constitutes dialect. I've probably visited this subject before, but feel moved, as I used to when teaching, to revisit.

It is the scourge of this part of the world to aspire to posh talk. Often this will have a southern English accent and a tendency to use the nominative form of the personal pronoun whatever the grammatical requirements of a sentence. I've had to deal with pupils quite adamant that "Mrs X told Jimmy and I not to do that" was correct because their mother insisted they didn't say "me" in that context - it took about twenty exemplar sentences and the removal of all other nouns to show them the principle behind it. Of course, they hadn't been parsing sentences from age seven or wrestling with Latin, poor ignorant little mites ...

But it's this business of confusing grammatical inaccuracy with dialect that is currently getting my goat. "Amn't" is a perfectly legitimate contraction of "am I not" - and the absurd "Aren't I" is simply wrong, no matter how many marbles fill the mouth of the speaker. Dialect involves words like "scunner" and "glaikit" - regional words used in sentences which may be syntactically perfect.

Am I alone in caring about stuff like this? I know that some of my colleagues complained that with my departure from the school there would be no-one to ask about the grammar bits in Interpretation passages - for my generation was almost the last to be routinely educated in this fashion. And does it really matter in the greater scheme of things? I'd say yes. For I'm convinced that a grasp on the finer points of sentence construction is what still makes people accuse me of being nippy (moi? nippy? I ask you!) because I can say what I mean with relative brevity and clarity, and that much never can be obsolete ...

And besides, I can always feel smug when I see others getting it wrong. Or enraged.

Note: There's a wee quotation hidden in that lot. Usual plaudits apply.


  1. Anonymous7:49 AM

    Ooooh, stop Larkin about.

  2. Surely "am I not" would have to contract to "am'n't" - "am not" contacts to "amn't" just as "do not" contracts to "don't".

    Am I way off beam again or just being tumshie.

  3. AHM, common usage would include the pronoun "I" as part of the sentence, as in "Amn't I a clever girl, then?"

  4. Kelvin, another Mars next time we meet? or will a virtual one do this time?

  5. Anonymous1:05 PM

    I think we need to find a more healthy prize for your competitions than Mars bars.

  6. Such upmarket visitors I have here! Kelvin, what strikes you as a suitable substitute? a Frusli bar? an apple? or have you something more exotic in mind ...?

  7. A glass of good red wine would not go amiss!

    You make my point re "am I not"; it is translated into "am not I" and then shortened to "amn't I". The contraction is of "am not" and does not include the "I". OK, so I'm being pedantic.

  8. Anonymous11:10 PM

    Bring back Latin. Any moderately intelligent child, if given effective instruction, can achieve a basic grasp of Latin by the age of 11. Mastering case endings will set them up as grammarians and linguists for life. In these modern times, the study of Arabic or Polish will serve just as well as an introduction to grammar, but Cicero is of greater benefit to the mind and soul than the entire corpus of Arabic literature.

  9. Elliot, I used to teach Latin as well as English, but it went sadly out of fashion. The PT classics retrained and emerged as PT Computer Studies and I went on bashing away at English in the hope that some of it might rub off.

  10. Anonymous12:16 PM

    Just back from retreat, Mrs B, but I'm glad the controversial "Amn't I?" raged on in your blog in my absence! (Interspersed by Mars Bars of course).

    It made me grateful for an English teacher who insisted we parsed and parsed and parsed sentences until parsing was coming out of our ears! I still do it in my head!

    Spelling can let me down in latter years for some reason, but I'm a terrific parser. Amn't I?