(Note: I wrote this article before I had really studied any linguistics. If I were to write this article over again, I would do a thorough literature review first– making sure I know what I’m talking about– and offer a big bibliography) According to some English dictionaries, the word “ain’t” is considered improper English. But what is English? English is what English speakers speak, and English speakers say “ain’t”. The dictionary writers face a difficult dilemma with a word like “ain’t”. It is certainly spoken by English speakers, some dialects more than others, but definitely spoken. So on the one hand, there’s a temptation to label it a perfectly standard, correct word. The problem, though, is some of the dictionary’s customers are using it to write things which will be reviewed by editors or teachers. And editors/teachers are seldom up to date on the latest nuances of linguistics. Thus, if the dictionary said that “ain’t” was standard and correct, they’d run the risk of getting their customers in trouble if the customer’s boss/teacher disagreed.

Unfortunately, it’s a self-feeding cycle. The dictionary labels a word incorrect because certain parties say so, and then those same parties use the dictionary to justify their claim.

This is just a symptom of a deeper flaw. The deeper flaw is that words are not defined by the short, clever definitions we find in dictionaries. They’re defined by the experiences of the listening. Here’s an interesting bit of language trivia. In countries where the populace is ruled by a hated dictator, the word “leadership” (or its direct translation) often has much more negative connotations than it does in the standard democracy. In a fair democracy like the U.S., “leadership” is an admirable trait which we want to have more of. Not as much so in less fortunate nations.

For all practical intents and purposes, the meaning of a word is the response it creates. A word like “ain’t” has a very complicated meaning. Spoken to certain parties or in certain circumstances, “ain’t” will make the listeners imagine you’re somehow less intelligent or less educated. That’s not a flaw with the word “ain’t”, it’s simply a part of the meaning of the word. In other words, the word has different meaning to different listeners, and to some listeners part of that meaning is “The person who said this is stupid”. And in a certain sense, that meaning is true: if the speaker really understood the word, they wouldn’t use it in that circumstance; hence, if they use it, it suggests a lack of understanding. This is all far below conscious awareness, though.

What dictionaries contain is not the true definition of the word, but a close approximation to what it usually means to the typical listener. Same with grammar. Grammar, the official set of rules which supposedly govern English (or any other language), is really just a model of the language. It’s very much like various theories of physics. For example, Newtonian physics, the theory of physics based on Isaac Newton’s ideas, is known to be false. It’s made obsolete by relativity theory and quantum theory. But it’s still taught, and it’s still used by engineers, because it’s a very close, very good approximation. That doesn’t make it correct, though. In the same way, English grammar is just a bunch of rules which attempt to approximate the language, but that’s all they are, approximation. They can’t be totally correct, and even if they somehow were totally correct, it wouldn’t last long since the language itself is constantly changing.

“Prescriptive Linguistics”, or just “prescriptivism”, is the act of taking the official models of a language, and treating them as sacred perfect representations of the language, and enforcing them on people. For example, correcting someone who uses the word “ain’t”, even if it’s used in an appropriately casual way. In the past X years, linguists have tended from being prescriptive, toward being descriptive. “Descriptive Linguistics”, or just “descriptivism”, is the study of language as it is spoken (and written). Thus when the descriptivist hears a word or sentence that contradicts her model of the language, it is the model which must be corrected, not the speaker.

One thing that even the most devoted descriptivists can forget, though, is that even their arch-enemies, the prescriptivists, are still valid speakers of the language. Thus, a diehard descriptivist might totally disregard whatever the prescriptivist says about the word “ain’t”. But what the prescriptivist says about “ain’t” becomes part of the word’s meaning, just by virtue of the prescriptivist understanding it that way. That doesn’t make the prescriptivist’s opinion absolutely true, though. If the prescriptivist says “This word is totally incorrect”, what that does for the word is just add a clause at the end of the meaning, “note: some listeners think this word is incorrect”.

When William Shakespeare wrote his plays, they were considered the crudest form of entertainment, something that appealed to the unwashed masses. Today his every word is treated like scripture. The man who wants to really understand English as it stands today, that man must leave the English departments and universities, and get in the clubs, get in the streets, get in the house parties and raves and coffee shops. In short, he must go where English is spoken. The thick books of English professors today will crumble, and the slang of the uneducated man on the street will become the golden standard. In time, the slang will become the textbook, and the cycle will repeat itself.

FURTHER READING:

You might be a prescriptive linguist if…
It Needs Fixed
The English Double Negative