I grew up in a home where use of standard English was not a mere suggestion. My parents gritted their teeth through our very early years of learning the language and seemed to have a basic understanding that it takes most children at the very least two to two-and-a -half years to get verb conjugations straight, particularly with irregular verbs. They were patient as we mastered the art of using adverbs. I don't think they ever thought our miscues were cute, though. It surprised me, then, when looking at Matthew's baby book, to read my mother's annotation that at the age of two, he substituted the word Thursday for thirsty, as in, "I'm Thursday; I need a drink of water." It would have seemed to me that my mother would have been embarrassed to admit that either of us mangled the English language to such a degree. One thing I found in my own baby book was, inside a plastic sleeve, a crumpled paper than had been flattened for many years, but still retained lines from its original crumpling. On the page -- just a piece of computer paper -- was scrawled the word ain't over and over, probably twenty or so times on each side, in my five-year-old printing. I had been sent to time out in my parents' library for some offense I don't even remember, and apparently didn't think it was fair, so I expressed my outrage by writing the contraband word as many times as I could fit on the single sheet of paper. I crumpled the paper, put it in the wastebasket, and thought that was the end of the matter. It certainly didn't occur to me that either of my parents would think it was funny or would bother saving it.
When we were in real school, we were expected to speak the language properly. The nuns at our Catholic school we attended for kindergarten weren't all that patient with poor grammar and incorrect syntax, either, but Matthew and I were the least of their problems in that regard. We had barbarian Nazis at home correcting our spoken English. We would have know for years by that time not to say, "I seen him" or "She don't know how to tie her shoes." The cardinal sin in our home, however, was the use of the word ain't. Matthew and I certainly knew by kindergarten age that if we were going to say ain't, we might just as well drop an f bomb with it. the penalty probably wouldn't have been any worse.
To the best of my knowledge, neither Matthew nor I was ever caught saying ain't audibly at home. It's not that there was no temptation. If a parent says enough times not to say something, it must be a really fun thing to say, right? I can remember when we'd be in our car seats or boosters on a road trip, if we didn't have to go to the bathroom, we might not get out on a really quick gas pit stop. As soon as both parents were out of the car and the doors closed, we'd start saying "the A word": "You ain't gettin' any of my Skittles, Matthew," I'd say to him even though I new I'd get tired of them before I'd finished half the bag.
"No, you ain't gonna be able to finish 'em. And if you ain't gonna eat 'em all and they don't get et by you, they ain't gonna go to waste," he would respond.
We seemed to get that certain other syntactical errors flowed naturally with the use of ain't. "She ain't bringin' us no Dr. Pepper, Matthew, because she don't like us consumin' caffeine," I would tell my brother as our mother approached the car with two styrofoam cupped-drinks, likely bearing root beer or orange soda.
"She ain't really got no idea iffen caffeine don't be good for us or not," was his reply.We had the dialect down every bit as well as if we had been brought up by parents who spoke it fluently as a first dialect. The second either parent opened the car door, we reverted to standard English.
Once I didn't want to invite a particular classmate to a birthday party, so I told my mom the girl frequently said ain't. My mother said that the little girl did not have parents who spoke English at home, and it was not her fault that she used the word ain't; she refused to remove the girl's name from the list of invitees. Years later, I am so incredibly grateful to my mother for taking the stance that she did. I would have trouble living with myself even fourteen years later if the little immigrant child had been excluded from my birthday party primarily on the basis of my snobbishness attempting to masquerade itself as a member of the grammar police.
Another time, when I was in second grade, I had a playmate over -- the child of English-only speaking parents: a dentist dad and stay-at-home mom who was a credentialed teacher. The little girl said "ain't" loudly in our family room as we were playing. I braced myself for the worst. My mom came into the room where we were playing and explained, using a much softer and kinder voice than she would have used had I been the one to utter what was considered an epithet in our home, that ain't was not a proper English word, and it was not good for the child to be in the habit of saying it. The little girl responded with, "Lady, how I talk English ain't none of your damn business." The play date ended abruptly as my mother drove the child home. The child never came to our house again, nor I to hers. We moved about five months later so it didn't have to turn into some sort of family feud in the tiny rural Catholic community.
Now that we are older, my brother and I have seen my dad's true colors. We know that he swears with greater fluency than does the average sailor or truck driver. Yet still he does not use the word ain't, nor does he commit other errors in English language usage. For example, the pundit on Fox and friends isn't "fucking stupid;" he or she is "fuckingly stupid." My father's philosophy is that if one must curse, one should do so using the most standard English possible.
My brother and I, over the past few weeks, have picked up on a few questionable pronunciations and clearly slang terms that seem to make my dad's skin crawl. My mom doesn't appear to care so much, as she believes that she did her job in teaching us to speak standard English, and if we're stupid enough to forget it now that it matters, it's our problem. I do think she finds my dad's reaction funny, though.
One of my dad's pet peeves is the pronunciation of the silent t in the word often. It's become standard though not preferred usage through repeated misuse. If you take any word in the English language and get enough people to pronounce it incorrectly, the incorrect pronunciation will eventually make it into one or more dictionaries as an acceptable if secondary pronunciation. I've taken up saying often as often as possible, and to articulate the t each time I say it. It drives my dad bonkers, though, as I've told you all before, it's the shortest trip he's ever taken.
My brother has picked up the slang term iffen. I think it just means if, but it sounds so much more like a drunken Isla Vista resident trying to sound like a cool college kid. My brother also mispronounces the word mischievous. He's taken to pronouncing it mis CHEE vious. You have to add that i to create an extra syllable to make your mispronunciation really stand out. My brother finds more ways of working it into a conversation than I ever could.
As much as I'd love to throw a couple of A-bombs into casual discourse, I do worry about my parents' blood pressure. I do not wish to be responsible for the untimely death or incapacitation of either of them.
So iffen you ain't too busy and gots some time on yours hands, read my's blog and respond in you's own best standard English. I does reply to most of my comments. My brother, I wish I could say he do, but he don't often [the t is pronounced] do that sorts of things.