Fear of the Non-Standard

Back in the fall of 1993 I was studying in Avignon, France. We’d have classes four days a week, but Wednesdays we’d take day trips throughout Provence. We went to Aix-en-Provence, Nimes, Arles, Les Beaux, Gironde, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, Marseilles, Les Saintes-Maries-la-mere, la Camargue, Gourde, l’abbey de Sénanque… I cannot believe I remembered all those Wednesday destinations, but I feel like I’m leaving someplace out.

Our French lit prof was a jolly English prof at the Avignon Fac. He was married to an American woman and had a son, V, who had a French accent, but was nevertheless a native speaker of English. He came with us on one of the Wednesday trips.

He asked me once about how to pronounce the word “aren’t.” Most of us do it all in one syllable, and the syncopated vowel means that the /r/, the /n/ and the /t/ are all crammed together at the end of the syllable. We don’t think about it, but it’s gotta be tough for the folks who don’t like consonant clusters at the end of a syllable. Aren’t, aren’t, aren’t .

So I told V what I could (i.e., you don’t have to release the /t/) but it was tough for him, especially on the first day. So I told him, you know, I don’t really use “aren’t” in regular speech. You aren’t, we aren’t, they aren’t.

I told him, that I, for one, had a strong preference for “You’re not…, we’re not.., they’re not…” It’s an alternative; it doesn’t solve his problem, but it means exactly the same thing, and in this case, my work-around is actually a preferred, at least by me. V was glad about this alternative, but what he really wanted was to feel good about saying “aren’t.”

But you know; you’re not going to feel good about unfamiliar phonology on the first day. If you don’t believe me, watch an American try to pronounce Tagalog words “ngayon” and “ngiti,” Take video, that’s worth a chuckle. Maybe they’ll successfully pronounce it on the first day, but it won’t “feel natural” in their mouths until much later.

Anyway, I offered V the non-standard alternative of saying “ain’t,” which is not anybody’s standard English, but it’s OBVIOUSLY A NATIVE-SPEAKER CONSONANT-CLUSTER SIMPLIFICATION OF “AREN’T.” Look at it with the eyes in your face: aren’t vs. ain’t. Obviously V wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with syllable-final consonant clusters; some native speakers were uncomfortable with it as well!

At this point, the girl with the curly red hair sitting a row behind us in the bus said “NO!” She crossed her forearms in the air and then did a grandiose, slow-motion X-chop while shaking her head emphatically, a Goddess of Dialect Orthodoxy. “DO NOT. SAY “AIN’T; THAT IS NOT. CORRECT. DO NOT. LEARN THAT.” she declared. “IT’S BAD.”

Holy smokes, V, that woman is going to strike you down from the sky if you use “ain’t.” My mistake. Later I slaughtered a dove and laid it before her in sacrifice.

Except I didn’t. “It’s not standard,” I told V, “but people say it in casual situations.”

I know that the girl with the curly red hair wanted to protect V from the filthy habits of the unwashed, uneducated “ain’t” sayers of the English speaking world. She wanted V to take a place beside her, in the pantheon of dialectal orthodoxy, where non-standard variations must not even be KNOWN about.

From my point of view, this was a bilingual kid, a NATIVE SPEAKER of English, who knows all about register and prestige standards, and its smart enough to handle an auxiliary verb. Did she think he was stupid?

Yes, she did. Protect him, he’s too stupid to navigate “ain’t.”

As for me, when I think about the people that say “ain’t” in my life, I’m glad that I know them; they make my life experience richer. Some of them are Americans, some are British… my Grandma Juling who lived in San Diego used “ain’t,” she lived a long life and passed away peacefully, surrounded by family. The “ain’t” persecutors failed to take her joy.

As an addendum, I’d like to mention that this story is DRIPPING with racial subtext, even though I didn’t mention anything directly. I didn’t think it was important to get into that over a pronunciation question. Still, it’s all there. We all saw it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s