I Think, Therefore I Say ‘Amn’t I?’ – Frank McNally on a profound question of Hiberno-English
An Irishman’s Diary
Christy Brown: his mother’s utterances included appealing to the ultimate matriarch: “Mother of God, amn’t I scourged?”
One of the peculiarities of being Irish is a tendency, when using what grammarians call the negative-interrogative for the first-person singular present indicative, to say “amn’t I?” Reacting to good fortune, for example, we will ask: “Amn’t I the lucky one?”
Or conversely, after locking keys in the car, we lament: “Amn’t I the big eejit?” For some reason, the phrase seems especially popular with Irish mothers, although this could be the influence of a few famous ones, including Christy Brown’s, whose typical utterances included appealing to the ultimate matriarch: “Mother of God, amn’t I scourged?”
Anyway, in using this form, we would seem to have the English language rule-book on our side. “I am” is, after all, the first-person singular of the verb “to be”. “I am not” is its negation. “Am I not?” or “Am not I” are the acceptable interrogative forms, which gives “amn’t I?” as the logical abbreviation.
But somehow this is not the norm in English. On the contrary, in the vast anglophone world, we are almost alone in using it. Only our cousins in the north of the neighbouring island do likewise.
Thus the great authority on these matters, Fowler’s Dictionary, while agreeing that amn’t I? should be the “expected reduced form” of am I not?, notes its popularity in Scotland and Ireland “but not in standard southern British English” or elsewhere.
Instead, for centuries, the English have said ain’t I? or aren’t I?: habits which, particularly the former, have spread to the US and beyond. And it seems there is no better reason for this, historically, than that most people in Britain couldn’t pronounce the sounds “m” and “n” together.
One of the letters had to go, and it tended to be “m”. The phrase first became an’t I? or ain’t I?. Then, when the short a gave way to a longer one in speech, there needed to be a way to suggest this in writing. The solution was to add an “r”, making the written question aren’t I?
The “r” was unrolled and therefore silent, except to turn the short ain’t into a longer ahn’t. But in writing, it suggests an illogical belief that the answer to the question aren’t I? could be I are. And the annoying thing about this is that these same long-a sounds have often been considered prestige English.
Happily, in this case, that didn’t apply. Ain’t never quite became respectable, even in America. Meanwhile in Britain, aren’t remains frowned on too.
Kingsley Amis included the latter in The King’s English, his guide to the use and abuse of language. With typical sensitivity, he suggested aren’t I? “is often said but better not written except in fictional dialogue, where it usually helps to characterise some semi-literate or otherwise low person”.
He went on to give his own history of the phrase, agreeing that am not I? or amn’t I? were the logical forms, “but nobody could say either easily”.
To this and the rest of his defence of ain’t, (which he called “perfectly good English”), he added a telling conclusion.
Most sticklers for correct usage claim respect for language as motivation. The urge to score points off others is rarely mentioned. So we must appreciate Amis’s honesty when he writes: “One attraction of my theory is the ill-natured glee it brings to believers in it when they hear some unreconstructed pedant struggling to say amn’t I? I remember that the late AJ Ayer was one of these”.
AJ Ayer was an English philosopher. And although Amis was mentioning him in a lesson about the importance of clear English, it’s not obvious from the sentence whether he meant Ayer to be one of the “believers” in his theory or “some unreconstructed pedant”.
Resisting the temptation for ill-natured glee, I will assume he meant the latter – ie that Ayer was a rare English enthusiast for amn’t I. But either way, a philosopher (of all people) would have understand how fundamental the question contained within that phrase can be.
Ayer was certainly not a believer in the religious sense. He first considered arguments about God’s existence unprovable and therefore meaningless.
Then he became a devout atheist in later life, until a near-death experience caused him doubts.
He still preferred atheism even then. But we haven’t heard from him since his actual death, in 1989. So we remain no wiser about the existence of God, or indeed his mother, not to mention the really important issue for grammarians: whether, when using the negative-interrogative for the first-person singular in English, they say amn’t I?