I wrote this a long time ago, but with my full schedule starting Monday it seemed dreadfully appropriate now:
I suppose it started when my son and I shopped at a local food store. Some five year old near us called to his mother, “Hey Mama! Do we be needin’ potatoes?” To which his mother replied, “We ain’t be gottin’ no need for no potatoes.” The kid paused, looked up, and I said it sounded like they didn’t need them but that I hadn’t done the math yet.
It’s a big bad negative world we live in.
“No, I ain’t feeling bad.”
“I don’t be needin’ none of your shit.”
“Don’t be talkin’ no trash to no one.”
The bad grammar is not the problem, though that’s a problem. It’s the not-so-vague undercurrent of negativity which surfaces in conversation and conduct that is the true issue. The “ain’t”s, “no”s, and “don’t”s run out front of their ramblings like offensive tackles, pushing and shoving as soon as the sentence comes off the tongue. It’s hard to avoid them.
These grammatically-challenged people subconsciously convinced themselves that nothing good is going to happen. Worse, something negative precedes all of their actions, both verbal and proverbial. It’s positively shocking. Listen:
At a McDonalds where two workers tried to fix a blender: “It don’t do nothing, do it?”
At a restaurant when the hostess asked another customer where he’d like to sit: “It don’t make no difference.”
At the counseling office on campus: “You mean he don’t need no developmental English?”
Maybe I’m simply not a negative person—except now of course.
Truth is, I really couldn’t care less about the speech, though it is annoying. And I can easily attempt to administer editing drills that eliminate this moron-babble from their essays; what I can’t control is the rising tide of helplessness that’s the true problem. Why does anyone want the primary root idea of every thought and conversation to be a variation of “no”?
I really don’t know.
I asked my students what they hoped to accomplish after college, where they hoped to be. They hadn’t thought about it. One student said, “I don’t want to think about it. It don’t look too good out there.”
Momentum is dead. These people feel like they’re running on ice. Was a time they knew they could defeat anything that kept them from their goals. They believed in themselves. Their natural mental state bent toward something positive. No more.
Everything, after all, is negative. War pervades the American mind in little more than a stream of body counts and car-bomb updates. Hurricanes slam our shores and send us reeling into “he should have” “she should have” volleys. The news has always been negative, but now the news is on all the time, from computers, I-phones, television, radio, and newspapers. None of it is good and it ain’t getting no better. And college isn’t a hiding place either. Most students would rather pull a lower grade than have a professor look at a rough draft; students immediate reaction to any question, proposal, suggestion, or instruction is absolute defense and anxiety; if it happened before they were born, it really doesn’t have any affect on them and therefore they shouldn’t be required to learn about it. Hamlet is boring; Oedipus is stupid; statistics is tedious; bio lab is too long; developmental classes are a waste of money; introduction to lit is a waste of time; history is not relevant; philosophy has no practical application; psychology is fucked up and so are the instructors; text messages are read more than text books; face to face communication is obsolete; and when I tell them they are better than their attitudes, that they can achieve every single one of their goals despite being trained for twelve years to simply do what they’re told and shut up, they laugh and say, “I ain’t got no time for none of that.”
In their defense, however, who really cares? After all, I do know what the students are saying, or trying to say, and I understand why they have slipped into such lazy, uneducated speech. I know the times they live in now demand this mindless reactionary talk in order to be accepted by other mindless friends. But these people graduated from a high school in the United States. They are what we define as “educated” and “literate.”
“Professor Kunzinger, I ain’t had no time to finish no works cited page.”
“Mr. Kunzinger, my car don’t have no spare tire and I be stuck out here.”
“Bob, I don’t need no developmental English. I didn’t do bad in high school.” This is what I’m talking about: Not, “I did well in high school,” but “I didn’t do bad.” But they fit in. Bottom line remains—you’ve got to fit in.
These kids are so passive that sounding intelligent is of no value. They don’t understand that command of the language is not about being taught some med-evil construct carried over the pond by mostly snotty old white upper class Englishmen. Using the language as a sword with skill and finesse allows them to outwit anyone, any age, any income. It allows them to move without being noticed from group to group to take command, to lead, to sway the argument in their favor. It is the basis of all advancement, and it acts as the sharpest tool against a dull public out to take advantage of everyone.
This is real–these are actual responses:
“My dad don’t have no computer at home, and I ain’t got no time to spend in no library.”
“You ain’t going to accept my paper? But my math teacher don’t give me no time to work on no paper with all the lab shit she got us doin.”
“I don’t remember no requirement to turn in no rough draft? That ain’t what you said. Bullshit.”
“I don’t need to be hearin nuttin bout no work I gotta be doin.”
This is standard now. This is the formal reply understood by most of the students roaming the hallways. They believe the art of communication is simply to be understood; it has nothing to do with being respected and taken seriously. “I should be accepted for who I am, not how I speak,” I’ve been told many times.
Listen: How you speak IS who you are. You may be brilliant, but prove it for God’s sake. Stop hiding the Mensa tendencies.
I call it “Tonal Directed Conversation.” The literal translation of the words is not nearly as important as understanding what the person means. Back to the store: “I ain’t be gotten no need for no potatoes,” in tone, is crystal clear. This woman is not buying the spuds. In fact, if I did do the math, it even comes out that way. She’s got three negatives floating through that amoebae sentence; it actually spins back toward “no” in the end. But that aside, the tone is clearer than the language. Knowing that, she might as well have been speaking Russian or Turkish. What difference does it make even if she merely grunted and pointed, so long as the tonal inference clearly shut out the potato-buying possibility.
Everyone knew what she meant; it don’t make no difference.
I figured she had been in high school during the Reagan administration. But when Reagan told them to “Just say no,” this is so not what he meant. So now the question remains: Is it enough to know what someone means?
I’ve been teaching too long to know it wasn’t always like this. I don’t remember any (note: “any” not “no”) such verbal abuse years ago. Students could complete a coherent sentence without round-kicking the language. And when I tell my students this, they tell me I’m arrogant and offensive. Well, there they’ve got me.
The thing is, sometimes, I am also wrong.
History compels me to admit maybe I don’t know nothing about what I’m saying. A little homework reveals how English ain’t so easy to master: Turns out most other languages thrive on the negative, and double negatives in fact were once wholly acceptable in English. Chaucer says of the Friar, “There was no man nowhere so virtuous”; and Shakespeare’s Viola says of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.” It’s all about emphasis. English remains, in fact, the only major language that doesn’t allow double negatives. Why? Well, it simply ain’t logical. Grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to the double negative because these humanists who emerged during the age or reason demanded English conform to formal logic. They pointed out that two negatives destroy each other and make a positive. Since then, half a millennia later, this rule advocated by teachers of grammar and writing has become fundamental.
Nevertheless, all speakers of all educational backgrounds continue to use multiple negatives when they want to make a point, as when President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” That line uttered earlier by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer was the first spoken words of cinema. And the movies ain’t got no better since.
I don’t like being wrong, however, so I called a linguist.
“What is the problem with ‘ain’t’?” I asked.
“Well,” he said. “It first appeared in English in 1778, evolving from an earlier form an’t, which arose almost a century earlier as a contraction of are not and am not. In fact, ain’t comes from the same era that introduced ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t.’” He took what sounded like a sip of tea. “Ain’t and some of these other contractions came under criticism in the 1700s for being inelegant and low-class, even though they had actually been used by upper-class speakers. But while don’t and won’t eventually became perfectly acceptable at all levels of speech and writing, ain’t does not come from any direct word sequence, making it a “vulgarism,” that is, a term used by the lower classes.”
He stopped talking. “Cool,” I said. “But are not contractions of any form vulgar to a true linguist?”
“No, Bob,” he said. “I do not think so. Even a linguist can not avoid using them.”
I was not clear about this so he clarified. “Distaste for the word ‘ain’t’ is still alive, Bob. Its use is still regarded as a mark of ignorance.”
“But technically then,” I argued, “these students are not wrong, they are just living in the Middle Ages.”
“Well, I would not say that. I believe we must accept that vulgarisms have no place in our language. The worst of these vulgarisms is the double negative and ‘ain’t. It also thrusts their mentality toward depression. With language, however, we can contract hope and the future into a vulgarism we can all live with. Emphasis should be on the meaning.”
“So you are saying that without meaning in our words we are simply grunting with accents and scratching our stupidity.”
“Exactly, Robert. Well put,” he said.
I had to disagree. “Wait, though. You’re the linguist here, but maybe the nay-sayers are correct.”
“But they could not possibly…”
“Isn’t it possible that tone really is more important than meaning?”
“No! That simply does not make sense.”
“That seems a bit negative?”
“Perhaps if these students understood education…”
“Well now you’re being arrogant and offensive!”
“Are you suggesting that the rudiments of the language are enough?”
“Well what difference does it make how they say it. You know what they meant?”
After he hung up I thought more about it. English has evolved for a thousand years, leaving behind meaning, gaining new meaning through time. We’ve dropped words completely, changed the definition of others. In America’s early days, the Irish, the English, the Italians and the Dutch beat the crap out of English. Webster came along and fearful of a country with multiple languages each with nearly unrelated dialects, homogenized us all to the English we banter about today. But why would be believe we’re done? The language is still evolving. Maybe we’re at the start of a neo-Renaissance. While Newton would have taken issue with the illogical taste of double negatives, Voltaire would have loved it. The language is changing, there is no doubt about that. How we speak today is a far cry from where we were, and a faint hint of what’s to come.
Truth is, you ain’t seen nothing yet.