Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

Amn’t I talking to you? (Anne Emery, Death at Christy Burke’s, 2011)

Amn’t I after telling you that, said Donal. (Sean O’Casey, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, 1949)

Amn’t /’æmənt/, though centuries old, is not part of standard English. But it is common in Ireland, used especially in colloquial speech though not limited to informal registers. It’s also used in Scotland (alongside amnae and other variants) and parts of England – the OED says the north, and west midlands – and occasionally elsewhere, such as Wales.

How amn’t came to be so geographically limited is not fully clear. Another variant, an’t, probably supplanted it in general usage because speakers wanted to avoid sounding /n/ immediately after /m/; see Michael Quinion and Robert Beard for brief commentary on this. David Crystal says it was therefore:

a natural development to simplify the consonant cluster. The final /t/ made it more likely that the simplification would go to /ant/ rather than /amt/, and this is what we find in 18th century texts, where it appears as an’t.

An’t, also spelt a’n’t, is the “phonetically natural and the philologically logical shortening”, writes Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage. It too fell from favour, but not before morphing in two significant ways. It gave rise to ain’t, which has its own lively history, and it also began being spelt aren’t (by “orthographic analogy”, in Crystal’s phrase), which is pronounced the same as an’t in non-rhotic accents.

This explains aren’t I, which would otherwise seem a grammatical anomaly. Indeed, Gabe Doyle notes that its irregularity “earns the ire of the accountants” of English. But it has steadily gained acceptability in major English-speaking regions. Irish and Scottish dialects are the exception in retaining and favouring its ancestor, amn’t I.

icanhascheezburger - amn't i just cute enough to eat[image source]

Despite its vintage, its logic and its convenience, not everyone likes amn’t. It’s dismissed as “ugly” by Eric Partridge and as “substandard” by Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman describe amn’t I as “clunky” in Origins of the Specious.

Garner is incorrect, and the other pronouncements are subjective or prejudicial. Amn’t is not part of standard English, but it is standard and thoroughly normal in Hiberno-English. There’s nothing intrinsically unsound or deficient about it unless you prize minimal syllabicity, or prestige. It’s often called awkward, but it doesn’t feel awkward if you grow up with it. Even aesthetically amn’t has unique appeal.

Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl? (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922)

Ye don’t want me, don’t ye? And amn’t I as good as the best of them? Amn’t I? (Patrick MacGill, The Rat-pit, 1915)

So how is amn’t used? Commonly in questions: straightforward interrogative (Joyce, above), tag (MacGill), and rhetorical (see post title). These are the structures typically noted by lexicographers: Robert Burchfield’s revision of Fowler says it’s “used as part of the tag question amn’t I?”, while Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2nd ed.) associates it with “negative first-person questions”.

Neither Burchfield nor Dolan mentions other uses, but amn’t is not so confined. It’s used, for example, in declarative statements of the form I amn’t. Though even Irish people, in my experience, usually say I’m not in such cases, some of them also say I amn’t.

I amn’t sure I should go on at all or if you’d like a line or two from your bad old penny. (Joseph O’Connor, Ghost Light, 2010)

And you, my poor changling, have to go to Birmingham next week, and I, poor divil, amn’t well enough to go out to far-away places for even solitary walks. (J.M. Synge, Letters to Molly, 1971)

A bit odder is the double negative question amn’t I not, which I’ve come across in both tags (I’m not drunk neither, amn’t I not) and more centrally (amn’t I not turble [terrible] altogether). A straw poll I held on Twitter suggests, unsurprisingly, that it’s a good deal rarer than other uses of amn’t, but several people still confirm using it.

My Twitter query also showed that amn’t occurs in more than just tag questions in Scotland, disproving a claim I’d encountered earlier. It prompted lots of anecdata and discussion on the word’s contemporary use in Ireland and elsewhere, and is available on Storify for interested readers.

If I amn’t mistaken, the pinch is here. (Athenian Gazette, May 1691)

Oh, Peader, but amn’t I Dublin born and bred? (Katie Flynn, Strawberry Fields, 1994)

Amn’t may grow in frequency and stature or it might, like ain’t, remain quite stigmatised in formal English. At the moment it’s undoubtedly a minority usage, with just four hits in the vast COHA corpus, five in COCA, and one in the BNC. Even GloWbE, with its 1.9 billion words from informal sources, offers a mere thirty-one hits.

Last year I retweeted a comment from @Ann_imal, a US speaker who said she had “started saying ‘amn’t I’ instead of ‘aren’t I,’ and no one (except AutoCorrect) has questioned me”. A search on Twitter suggests she’s not alone: amn’t has modest but undeniable currency in Englishes and idiolects around the world.

infoplease dictionary amn't error

Social attitudes are decisive. Language Hat has noted that children acquiring language sometimes use amn’t – it is, after all, an intuitive construction – only to lose it along the way; a search on Google Books returns similar reports. LH used the word himself, and says, “I don’t remember when or why I stopped. The pressures of ‘proper English’ are insidious.”

In a neat inversion of the usual pattern, a commenter at Language Log recalls using aren’t I as a child and being corrected to amn’t I. More of this kind of parental guidance, or at least less proscriptive regulation in the other direction, may help amn’t gain more of a foothold outside Ireland and Scotland.

Not that I’ve anything against aren’t I, or ain’t for that matter. But if anyone felt they wanted to adopt amn’t and got past the social barrier, they would likely find it a handy, pleasing contraction. And that counts for a lot these days, amirite amn’t I right?

*

Today, by the way, is (US) National Grammar Day, which by semantic sorcery I’m interpreting as International Grammar Day to highlight a characteristic feature of grammar in Ireland. The Sentence first archives have lots more Irish English grammar and vocabulary.

I’m part of a tribe that thinks of grammar mainly as morphology and syntax, not spelling and style. But for more of both, visit the official website or browse the #grammarday tag on Twitter. Don’t miss John E. McIntyre’s wonderful pulp pastiche Grammarnoir.

Updates:

At her blog The Other Side of Sixty, Corkonian wisewebwoman says: “you wouldn’t believe the shellacking I took for brazenly using ‘amn’t’ when I moved to Canada. Laughter, disbelief and mockery ensued.”

I like a good coincidence. While editing this post I listened to the Mogwai song ‘Wizard Motor‘ on repeat, unaware, before a tweet from Helen McClory, that Mogwai also have a song called ‘Moses? I Amn’t':

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27 Responses to Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

  1. thebluebird11 says:

    I think many, if not all, kids start out saying “amn’t” as they learn language and start to extrapolate and apply rules. I’m not (I amn’t?) a linguist, but it seems to me that this is the same reason they say “catched” (because most verbs are made into past tense by adding “-ed”). “Ain’t” will always rear its head, but IMO both words should be acceptable. I would not likely use amn’t if I could use “I’m not,” (e.g “I’m not going” vs “I amn’t/ain’t going”), but in cases like “I’m just as good, amn’t I?” it follows rules of grammar better than “aren’t I.” We could do a combo spelling (amin’t) as a short form of “am I not,” which is how it’s pronounced anyway. I think maybe English doesn’t like to combine 3 words (am-I-not), almost like couldn’t’ve, wouldn’t’ve, shouldn’t’ve…which is unfortunately probably why we end up with ugliness like “couldn’t of,” “wouldn’t of” and “shouldn’t of.” Ewww!

  2. thnidu says:

    Taking last things first, thanks for posting the video. I hadn’t heard (± of) Mogwai before.

    I remember using “amn’t I” as a kid (USA, NYC suburbs, 1950s, “white”, middle-class). I don’t think I learned it from my parents, but just applied the same process as in the other forms. At some point I switched to “aren’t I” – told to or not, I don’t recall – and for many years now I’ve used “ain’t I” when I use a contraction for it.

    AFAICT, all the uses you list except “amn’t I not” are perfectly in line with the other negative contractions. I don’t recall ever hearing that, or “a(i)n’t I not”, raising the obvious(-to-a-linguist) questions, Does this double-negQ occur with the other neg-be contractions? and In what dialect(s)?

  3. One interesting point that Jonathan Hope made in The Development of Standard English 1300–1800 is that nonstandard varieties often iron out these little irregularities in paradigms. If a form like amn’t somehow fails to make it in to Standard English, the gap is likely to remain. (See also gender-neutral pronouns, the singular-plural distinction in the second person, and so on.)

  4. Alan says:

    When asked if you are interested in one of two equally attractive options that you are undecided about the answer is: I am and I amn’t. This is pronounced: iyamaniyamn’t!

  5. Malie says:

    I grew up in Devon with ‘to be’ as an almost regular verb in the present tense (I be, thee best, he/she/it be (or bes), we/yous/they be) and the negative contraction is just ‘ben’t’ (or ‘bain’t), with the first-person question form being ‘ben’t I?’ often without the ‘t’ pronounced. ‘aren’t I?’ is one of those things that always trips me up a little in Standard English, ‘amn’t I?’ isn’t something I’d say but feels much…easier. I usually dodge the issue with ‘am I not?’.

  6. Gerry Foley says:

    Despite having strong Irish background (7 out of 8 grandparents migrated in 19th C) I’ve never heard amn’t used in Australia, either by an adult, or by a child experimenting with language. From my own experience, at least, it looks as though the term never arrived here.

  7. adamf2011 says:

    I grew up in NYC in the 1970/80s, it wasn’t any kind of Irish or Scottish milieu, and I used “amn’t”. I don’t remember anyone correcting my usage, but at some point I realized I couldn’t think of anyone else I knew who was using “amn’t”. Anyway, it sounds natural to me — I think I still use it sometimes.

  8. Stan says:

    bluebird: It would be interesting to see data on how often children who are learning language use amn’t. I didn’t look for literature on it but will update the post if I come across something. English might not like to combine three words, but I’d’ve’d no problem combining four or even more sometimes. I wrote about would of, could of and company: another case of orthographic analogy, but a less reputable one.

    thnidu: Thanks for confirming that you used it too. I’m seeing a lot of these personal accounts – people who used amn’t intuitively as a child, through over-regularisation, only to drop it later through imitation or instruction. Re double negatives: similar strings occur such as don’t I not, which could be either overnegation or fully legitimate. Enjoy getting to know Mogwai.

    Jonathon: That’s very true. In most cases it seems to be because they don’t develop the irregularities to begin with. Your comment immediately reminded me of what as a relativiser; I see Hope mentions this example in his discussion.

    Alan: Yes! See my recent post on Irish doublethink.

    Malie: I love those variations. Hiberno-English, especially northern varieties, put be to similarly unorthodox uses, e.g., “She bes on the phone every evening” (sometimes spelt be’s or even bees). Hearing amn’t described as easier to say makes a pleasant change!

    Gerry: Ah, I’m glad of a report from Australia, as I had no idea if it had any colloquial currency there. I thought it might, given levels of Irish emigration there, so that’s a minor surprise.

    Adam: Thanks for the report. I’d say that’s a common enough experience – people using it but eventually noticing no one else was. I’m glad you haven’t renounced it, anyway.

  9. old gobbo says:

    Thanks for discussing this usage – not one I am greatly familiar with, though I agree it works perfectly well and, for instance, the Joyce usage you quote is heartrending. My own view would always be to support the nice young mother to whom we gave a lift one day. Her small boy pointed out of the window, saying eagerly, “Look, mum, twain. We was in a twain, didn’t we ?” – to which she very reasonably replied, “No, Johnny, that’s not right. ‘We was in a train, wasn’t we ?’ ”

  10. richardsmyth says:

    “An’t” is common for “haven’t” in West Yorkshire; for “I am not”, I would always have simply used “I’m not” (pronounced “am not”), but I’ve noticed that “I aren’t” is now widely used.

  11. mollymooly says:

    I think it is suggestive that the dialects where “amn’t” is most common are among those where “ain’t” is least common.

    “aren’t I” was considered precious by many Americans until a generation or two ago.

    I’ve never noticed “amn’t I not”; I have once or twice noticed overnegation with other negative questions, tag or otherwise (“didn’t he not”, “isn’t it not”). I would have assumed these were all isolated slips rather than dialect (or even idiolect) features.

  12. We use amn’t in Scotland too (And ah dinnae ken whit some fowk’s problem is wi’ it)

  13. Stan says:

    old gobbo: The word shows up a few times in Ulysses, as you’d expect, but that line was the most apt example. I like your anecdote. That boy should grow up proud of his dialect! Some years ago I went out with a woman in whose (UK) dialect “we was” was the norm; I found it charming.

    Richard: Interesting, thanks. Is an’t used for haven’t in both auxiliary and ‘possessive’ functions? I don’t remember hearing I aren’t but am pleased to know it’s available.

    mollymooly: I didn’t think of that, but it holds up in my experience: seldom do I hear ain’t used in Ireland except in songs and set phrases, or else self-consciously or ironically. Nor have I heard it much in Scotland. Amn’t I not is probably a lot rarer than more straightforward uses of amn’t; the Storify shows it’s unheard of or unused by a lot of people, but there are also several confirmations of its use, e.g. “Amn’t I not after doing such and such?”

    Andrew: The pressures of conformity, maybe. People, among other mammals, often react to difference with hostility.

  14. richardsmyth says:

    Stan – I think “haven’t”/”hasn’t” (both “an’t”) in these parts nearly always comes with “got”: “I an’t got enough money for the bus”, or “I an’t got to be there while 6 o’clock”. Maybe in the possessive sense in shorter constructions it might go without – “He an’t a clue” – but I think that would be slightly unusual.

  15. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:

    The Irish may be fine with “amn’t,”
    But in the US, it’s inclement;
    Although I’ve heard it here and there,
    Like “ain’t,” it causes some despair.

  16. For all the years I taught grammar, I find, finally, someone to agree with me–after all these nearly-fifty years! I always taught the errors in the grammar, and so it goes. You did it so well here: I am, you are, he is… I’m right, amn’t I? Otherwise, you are correct, aren’t you? As for me, I am correct, aren’t I? Love it!

  17. Stan says:

    Marc:
    There’ll always be defenders,
    Of this nonstandard amn’t;
    I hope the despair it engenders
    Is minimal when examined.

    James: I’m very glad to hear it. What constitutes error in usage is far less absolute than is often assumed.

    • Gerry says:

      Some years ago I was supervising a student teacher from a working class area who was practice teaching at a prestigious girls school. When I picked him up on his use of the word “youse”, he patiently explained to me that you use “you” for one person and “youse” for several. I pointed out that his usage was non-standard, and not suitable in the situation. He was somewhat abashed, and said that his parents and everyone in the area he lived talked like that; at which point I myself was somewhat abashed.

      • Stan says:

        Gerry: That’s an interesting example, especially because of where it took place. It would make for a good class discussion. I use youse myself sometimes, and also ye for you (pl.); both are very common in Ireland. Like amn’t, youse is the sort of word so often and so casually used (by those whose dialects include it) that it’s easy to see how a student teacher would utter it without thinking about its suitability.

  18. alexmccrae1546 says:

    These musings on ‘yousings’ (using ‘youse’) got me pondering the fairly common U.S. Southern all-inclusive “you” referencing phrase, “you’all”… alternately… “y’all”, and “yawl”. *

    In the South, it would appear from this casual observer’s vantage point that in the context of everyday, casual parlance, no matter the social standing of the individuals conversing, that “you’all”/ y’all” are perfectly acceptable, and almost ubiquitous in their use throughout the South.

    I imagine there might be a cultural bias in the South leaning toward you’all, or y’all arising from either early rural/ agricultural, or hilly-billy grassroots. But clearly, the phrase has eclipsed these purported linguistic progenitors, and become ‘class-blind’ in it’s wider usage.

    On the other hand, w/ “youse”, blogger Gerry makes the clear class distinction in framing his earlier comment that there is a specific class-rooted genesis of the word, or phrase “youse”, i.e, essentially, that it arose from “working class”, inner-city America, and seems to feel that that’s where it should permanently reside, within the bounds of that specific socio-economic community. Further, that its use would be inappropriate, “not suitable”, in the context of an upper-middle class private girls’ school classroom.

    I can appreciate Gerry’s point, in that the perhaps courser, idiomatic lingo of the street doesn’t really belong in the context of private-school standard classroom teacher-student, or student-student on-going dialogue; unless of course, in a special case, urban jargon was actually a topic of discourse on the curriculum. (Fat chance on that score.)

    What say y’all?

    * Not to be confused w/ the smallish two-sailed boat, y’all.

    • In case it wasn’t clear from my previous post, I was a little uncomfortable being the arbiter of language with the practice teaching student. But I knew he could be heading for trouble using “youse” and other non-standard terms while teaching in that particular classroom. To do him credit, he tried very hard to modify his language, and did well with his teaching. But this business of “correct” language is a tricky one. I remember my dear old granddmother (from a rather poor rural background) saying of her deceased husband, with a tear in her eye, “Me and Alec, we was great mates.” The last thing I’d do was think of criticizing her language.

  19. […] a March 4th post on the use of amn’t in Ireland, I mentioned that it was National Grammar Day – or as I think of it, International Grammar […]

  20. wisewebwoman says:

    Thank you Stan, it was all I needed for post of my own on the topic :)

    XO
    WWW

    • Stan says:

      Much obliged, WWW! I’ve added a link to your post above. I’m sorry to see your use of amn’t wasn’t warmly received outside Ireland: the antisocial effects of prestige dialects…

  21. I think it was one of the first things to spark my interest in the language. I remember sitting on my mother’s knee and asking: “Why did you say ‘Aren’t I’, mummy?”

    • Stan says:

      That’s a charming anecdote, Edward. I’d say it’s not unusual for children to wonder at the irregularity of aren’t I. They’re less inclined to notice its oddness as they grow older and become accustomed to it.

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