Plenary Speakers

Michael Montgomery
University of South Carolina

Hain’t You Got a Right to Say It?: Disentangling the History of Ain’t in the English of Appalachia

Everyone knows the revulsion directed at ain’t, yet generations of contempt and correction have succeeded mainly in driving it somewhat underground.  Stating that “the history of ain’t is both complicated and obscure, and the amount of real historical investigation devoted to it has been very small compared to the reams of paper that have been written to condemn it,” Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1989) devotes 4½ pages to the form, nine-tenths of which deals with three centuries of commentary and the contexts of its use in the 20th century as a stylistic marker among educated speakers.  Attestations of ain’t (or any form that can be interpreted as it, such as aint or ant) suggest development in the 17th century, but these are too few to prompt a consensus on wether it first derived from am not, are not, or is not.  Of course ain’t is also a variant of has not and have not.  Rather surprisingly, the first attestation of forms of all four (all apparent predecessor) to ain’t appear within 35 years of one another, between 1675 and 1710.  Does this information suggest one etymology or more?

The origin of ain’t, like so many speech-based forms, will probably remain a puzzle, but many unknowns exist for its subsequent history as well.  Grammarians like Jesperson, dependent as they have been on data from published literature, have been left largely to speculate on the extent to which ain’t as a variant of forms in the be + not paradigm have compared to ain’t in the have paradigm.  It would not be surprising if the two paradigms fell together to some extent, but how might we tell?  The keys to answer this question lie in two things.  First, we must remember that ain’t itself has a variant: hain’t.  Is the usage of hain’t governed primarily by phonological considerations (whether it occurs in stressed positions) or paradigmatic (whether it represents forms of have rather than be).  Only a quantitative study, heretofore conspicuous by its absence, can compare and disentangle the patterns and tell us whether ain’t became one verb rather than two.  In other words, what is the extent to which hain’t represents forms of be and ain’t represents forms of have?  The second thing is that we need manuscript data–lots of it–to compare the patterning of linguistic factors. 

Fortunately a body of manuscript data is being built.  The Corpus of American Civil War Letters has since 2007 tracked down and transcribed several thousand documents written by little-educated soldiers and their kinfolk on the home front.  A sub-corpus of CACWL for soldiers from Appalachia comprising c500,000 words will be explored in this presentation.  In it one finds 119 instances of aint, 113 of ant, 115 of haint, and 304 of hant, for a total of 651 of all four.  The sub-corpus contains c1500 contexts with negated forms of be or have or their equivalents.  It is not surprising to find sentences like the following:  

1) I seed the 18 Regt whar Miles is in they haint more then 200 hundren yards from the 28th.

2) I aint recivd hit.

This presentation cannot argue that aint and haint were more prevalent in Appalachia in the mid-19th century than elsewhere.  Such a claim can come only from comparing CACWL’s various sub-corpora.  What it can do, however, is to outline patterns as they were found in the unschooled writing of individuals from the region of Appalachia and to show the way forward in tracing the development of vernacular forms of American English.  One can be certain that Professor Jesperson would approve.


Mary Bucholtz
University of California, Santa Barbara

The Elements of Style

Traditionally, style has been theorized in sociocultural linguistics in two different ways: within quantitative sociolinguistics it has been conceptualized as intraspeaker variation across social contexts (Labov 1966), while within qualitative sociolinguistics it has been understood as interspeaker variability in interactional norms due to cultural differences (Gumperz 1982; Tannen 1984). Over the past decade, however, a third perspective on style has gained ground, thanks to the efforts of scholars working within a variety of sociocultural linguistic approaches (e.g., Auer 2007; Coupland 2007; Eckert and Rickford 2001; Mendoza-Denton 2008). In this view, style is not determined by pre-existing social or cultural factors but is instead an agentive semiotic practice through which social identities are constituted.

Drawing primarily on my own past and current research on language and youth identities in the United States, in this presentation I provide an outline of what I consider the key elements of this new concept of style:

(1)   distinctiveness (styles gain meaning only in relation to other styles)

(2)   complexity (styles are bundles of semiotic features)

(3)   recombination (stylistic features can be combined in new ways)

(4)   power and agency (styles are actively created by stylistic agents, but stylistic choices are limited by uneven access to semiotic resources)

(5)   habitus (use of a given stylistic feature may be a habitual practice rather than a deliberate choice)

(6)   interpretability and resignification (styles gain their social meaning through the interpretations of other social actors, but new meanings can also be created by stylistic agents)

(7)   contextualization (styles are locally situated within and are co-constitutive of ethnographic and interactional contexts) 

I argue that theorizing style as a semiotic practice with these characteristics has been crucial to the nuanced analysis of identity within sociocultural linguistics. 

**Thanks to the following UK units for sponsoring this conference: Vice President for Research, College of Arts & Sciences, English Department, Appalachian Studies Program, American Studies Program, Linguistics Program, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Division of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media, Hispanic Studies, Sociology Department, Anthropology Department, and the UK Linguistics Club.**