Monday, April 21, 2008

Tag, you're innit

From kottke.org I got a link to an interesting little articlette on the BBC Web site about the use of innit to finish sentences as what they identify as a tag question. The article specifically notes that innit, which is a contraction of the contraction isn't it, is becoming or has become an all-purpose tag question.

Examples from their text:

"We need to decide what to do about that now innit." (don't we?)
"I'll show young Miss Hanna round to all the shops, innit." (won't I?)

The piece says two things that I kind of wonder about, but don't have the wherewithal to go investigate, namely:

But kids in urban Britain are using 'innit' to cover a wider and wider range of situations.

My wonderings:
  • kids: I wonder whether this is in fact limited to kids and teens, or whether it's established among (some) adults as well when they're speaking non-standard English.
  • wider and wider. I heard innit used when I lived in the UK many moons ago. The article is suggesting that semantic range of innit is actively increasing. True, or is this just another instance of the recency illusion?
In my experience, this is strictly a British usage, but we have one or two equivalents in the U.S. as well. The one that springs to mind is you know?, which we can substitute in the examples above:

"We need to decide what to do about that now, you know?"
"I'll show young Miss Hanna round to all the shops, you know?"

Are there other constructs that we can plug in here?

I already know that you know? drives people to distraction in the US, and I imagine that innit does the same in the UK. The article is at least putatively in response to the question "Isn't innit ungrammatical?" I am delighted that their answer is "no" (coz it's just a tag question) and that the article specifically references similar tag-question particles in other languages, like ¿verdad? in Spanish. Which probably drives a lot of people to distraction in Spanish-speaking countries. I am reminded also that in German, gell is used in this considered-substandard way. Which probably drives a lot of Germans to distraction.

Anyway, yay for the BBC for not just whining about those damn kids and how they're ruining the language, innit?

16 comments:

Rick S said...

I hadn't heard of the evolution of innit into a generic tag question before, but in retrospect it's almost predictable. The standard system of forming questions in English is to invert the subject/verb order:

(1) You are having fun. -> Are you having fun?

If the tensed verb is not a copula or modal auxiliary, it must be replaced with a modal + infinitive construction with intervening subject:

(2) John feels excluded from the conversation. -> Does John feel excluded from the conversation?

To form a tag question, the verb must be negated by following it with "not" (contracted to "n't") if its sense is positive or by removing "not" (or "n't") if it's negative. Furthermore, everything but the (negated) copula or modal and the subject is elided, and the subject is almost always replaced with a pronoun having the corresponding gender and number:

(3) Sally likes vanilla ice cream. -> Doesn't she?

Notwithstanding how effortless this all seems to us native speakers, there's really a heap of syntactic analysis and construction going on here, as any ESL student can tell you. Contrast this with Spanish ¿sí? or ¿verdad? or French non? or n'est-ce pas?—no analysis required at all. It looks like innit may be posed to become an English equivalent.

It's not accurate to say that languages evolve exclusively toward reduced syntactic complexity, but this certainly occurs sporadically and can be persistent (cf. loss of most case marking in English). If innit is a British English example of this, might we soon start seeing isn't it used this way in America?

Or will we settle for the already available generic tag questions you know?, right?, don't you agree/think? I say "settle" because none of these carries just the right register for all occasions. The first conveys too much certainty, the second too little, and the third is too formal.

polsy said...

I actually hear "isn't it" frequently used in this way by the (young) adults I work alongside in North London, and have done for the last 5 years or so. Possibly they'd be using "innit" in a less formal situation.

I don't remember hearing it used in this way before I moved here, but then Cambridge is probably not the best place to hear non-standard grammar.

Rachel said...

I frequently end sentences with "so..." or "yeah..." but I'm not certain those have the same purpose.

Either way, it's an interesting point you bring up. The grammar geek in me did a little jig when Stumbleupon threw this blog in my direction. Thanks!

-Random Reader from Washington, DC

Brendan said...

I've also heard "innit" used in this way by some (American) Indians. When I read a book by Sherman Alexie, subvocalizing some of his characters' diavlog made me realize how familiar it was. Since then, "innit" never fails to jump out when I hear it spoken live (or recorded).

Ben said...

I frequently here "eh?" in Australia used in the same way, as a new Queenslander I find myself doing too. Also a Canadian thing I'd imagine.

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deense said...

In Oz they also put 'but' on the ends of sentences in that manner.

Lisa said...

As you mentioned, "gell" is used in German in the same fashion, but even stranger is the (Swiss/western Austrian)German word "oder" (or) which is also used as a type of tag question.

I find all these tag questions (also in English) rather annoying, as they are generally used as a tactic to force the listener to continue paying attention. They’re a kind of ploy to trick the listener into active participation through turning simple statements into questions that are constantly seeking approval. They always sound like the speaker is unsure if what he is saying is interesting enough that people would listen to him without manipulating their attention ... don't you think? :-)

Anna said...

I found "gell?" used quite commonly and without arousing the ire of people around when I was in southern Germany. As Lisa said, "oder" is really the best choice though when asking a question. "Gell" seemed like more of a slang, teenager-y thing, while everyone said "Oder?"(or) at the end of sentences to turn them into questions. "oder" definitely invites the listener to add their feedback and opinions on the matter, while 'gell' seems to be simply asking for agreement.

WordzGuy said...

@anna-

"while 'gell' seems to be simply asking for agreement"

That's what a tag question does. The original BBC article likewise suggests (tho they do not provide any specific evidence for this) that innit is slang among younger people.

petermk said...

When I visited India in the early 1970s I heard many Indian English speakers ending sentences with "isn't it?". I took this as directly equivalent to the Australian use of "eh?" that ben mentioned.

Vincent said...

I think the BBC was being characteristically coy about the contexts in which "innit" is used.

Petermk says he heard it in India in early seventies. This is a clue. The usage has been associated with the speech of young people with Asian immigrant parents. Perhaps they have learned some other language in the home first, and have picked up English at school from kids whose parents are indigenous.

The construction of questions by declarative statements followed by "aren't they?" "wouldn't she?" "wasn't it?" etc must in these circumstance seem too complicated, so an all-purpose "innit?" would be used instead.

The aboriginal English kids would simultaneously mock and emulate the Asian kids by using "innit?" as a comic form of speech.

The TV sitcom "Goodness Gracious Me!" about Asian immigrants to Britain (who also scripted and performed it) was full of these bits of patois, in many of which the Asians supposedly thought they were speaking impressively correct English.

ISNorden said...

Swedish has not one, but THREE generic "tags" that play the same role as ¿verdad? or n'est-ce pas?. From most to least formal:

-- inte sant? (literally, "not true?"); few people use this nowadays but I've seen it in print

-- eller hur? (literally, "or how?"); most typical in careful speech

-- vad?(literally, "what?"); very informal, almost slangy.

Blake Broussard said...

I'm a resident of the Southern United States, and I certainly give glorious Briton full credit for inventing "innit", but the way many say "isn't it" in my region... well, it sounds quite a bit like "innit".

Some I've heard say it pronounce the "s" ever so quickly, thus defferentiating itself from your word, although, for every person that pronounces a slight "s" there is a person who doesn't. This leads to people like me basically replicating "innit", just with a southern accent.

Finally, I'm not sure this is true of all the South; since I live in Louisiana where the traditional Southern accent you may be familiar with has been muddied by a long held tradition of speaking French... so, we have an accent somewhere between the traditional southern drawl and the quite familiar "Brooklyn" New York accent.

I will say, though, that I didn't notice the way in which we pronounce "isn't it" until well after I kept hearing you Brits put it at the end of every phrase. Some of the people I've heard say "innit" have no idea what relevance it has, and possibly, have no idea where the UK is... so, I seriously doubt they're copying it. Ah well, something to think about (if any of you actually make it through this lengthy post!)

Tony L said...

By the way, the following sentence from the blog post, apart from the "you know" phrase, is very NON-American in flavour: "I'll show young Miss Hanna round to all the shops, you know?" What American says "show round" or "to all the shops"? Non è vero?