Notes: Breakout

An odd locution has escaped its native habitat

WE ALL MAINTAIN ourselves from filters this tO or that in the outside world, lest the clutter become unbearable. These filters can trap material you would think would crash right through. I am still amazed, for example, that I did not learn about The Beatles until the night they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Once a given filter is breached, however, it is almost impossible to repair. Doesn’t it always happen that once you’ve been made aware of some person, place, or thing, you then encounter references to that person, place, or thing everywhere you turn? The answer is, Of course. This is just one of those mechanisms, like gravity, through which nature orders reality.

My attention was recently drawn to the phenomenon when a friend asked, “Have you noticed that people are saying dit’n instead of didn’t? I don’t mean people you might expect to say dit’n but educated people, and people not from the South.” In fact I had not noticed any such thing, but over the next several weeks, inevitably, I heard dit’n on the lips of an investment banker, a corporate lawyer, a professor of Romance languages, a demographer, a salesman at Brooks Brothers, a radiotalk-show host, a person who called the radio-talk-show host, a player of squash, and a number of other people. I called Frederick Mish, the editorial director of Merriam-Webster, the publishers of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, to ask if he had any information about dit’n, and he said to wait a minute while he looked to see if there was anything in the file. When he came back to the phone, he said, “It’s pretty thin, but there’s a note from one of our editors that says another one of our editors uses dit’n all the time.” Beyond the evidence of my ears, and perhaps yours, there is no conclusive evidence that this locution is gaining in popularity, but I spoke to several specialists in American English who suggest that at some point during the past two decades dit’n achieved a successful “breakout” from its base in the South.

Didn’t has long had a number of variants in the United States. Didn and ditnt can be heard everywhere, for example, and many people use both, the choice at any moment depending on such factors as how fast they are talking and whether the word that follows starts with a vowel ora consonant. Dint is a variant form that can be heard all over greater New York, among other places. Didna is used primarily by blacks. As noted, dit’n is originally southern. William Stewart, a professor of linguistics at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, had this to say: “Dit’n is spoken by more blacks than whites, but it’s still fairly common among whites, and it was probably a white variation to begin with. You see, the early black creole didn’t have a didn’t—only didna, from did no. I have no idea how long dit’n has been around, but it’s been a long time, and you’ll hear it now from people of all kinds. In the South nonstandardisms are common higher up the social scale than they are in the North.”

I brought up the matter of dit’n with James Hartman, a professor at the University of Kansas and the author of the pronunciation guide in the Dictionary of American Regional English. “Dit’n,” he said, “is a result of the intersection of two speech practices that you used to find particularly in the South and can now find increasingly in the Southwest and throughout the urban North. One is metathesis, which is the switching around of sounds—saying axe for ask, that sort of thing. The other is the substitution of a glottal for an alveolor stop. Instead of ending up with the tongue behind the teeth-ridge on the roof of your mouth, where it is when a word ends with a t or a d, it ends with the closing of the glottis in your throat, like when you say uh-oh or mount’n or fount’n.

WHY is dit’n spreading? The specialists I spoke to all came up with some version of the same answer: Since the 1950s the South has cycled millions of her sons and daughters through the rest of America, and the rest of America has cycled millions through the South. No such exchange of people, many of them transient, has ever before taken place in the United States on quite this scale. Naturally enough, some of the consequences have been, so to speak, pronounced. Rima McKinzey, the pronunciation editor of The American Heritage Dictionary, told me, “There are certain southernisms, such as bidness for business, or Ah for I, at which almost everyone not from the South will draw the line, either because the pronunciations are class markers or because they just don’t fit with natural speech habits. But a lot of others are gaining currency. You hear reckon more these days, and many more people saying hasten to say. Dit’n is one of the easiest to slide into, since it fits the common glottal-stop substitution pattern of words like kitten and button.”

Dit’n may not yet have achieved the potency of a virus at an airport, but it is likewise a pathogen whose presence frequently goes undetected. John Bollard, who was for many years the pronunciation editor at Merriam-Webster, told me, “The shift from didn’t to dit’n is not something that is always consciously noticed. People may use both forms without realizing it, and never really hear a distinction themselves. The change happens at what we call a subphonemic level of awareness. Sometimes you can even explain to people what they’re doing and they still don’t get it. A speech habit like dit’n is the most intractable kind there is.”

I am willing to accept that the rise of dit’n is in some measure—in great measure—a historical accident, a product of broad, impersonal forces. But there’s surely more to it than that. There are many people, I bet, who have affected dit’n because they find the term curiously attractive: a way of dressing up the stolid contraction didn’t by seeming to dress down. Many of these people, I suspect, think of themselves as having no accent, and yearn for some minor discordant note to lend character to their speech. Oh, I don’t contend that considerations of this kind necessarily sway the multitudes. But as we entertain the familiar questions about linguistic change—about why, for instance, at some point in antiquity the Germans started pronouncing p like f, and the Irish started pronouncing b like v—we should at least set a place for vanity.

—Cullen Murphy