How that

Discreet enquiries suggest that Chuck D is out of the office and being a Public Enemy on a beach somewhere until September, so we’re going to have to sort this one two three four out ourselves. I completely agree with Eric Bakovic and Mark Liberman that the big problem facing the phrase “Ain’t how that God planned it?” in Fear of a Black Planet is the missing “that”, so maybe it’s time to consider a different phrase.

If you listen to other recordings by Chuck D, I think you may find that he doesn’t use intonation to distinguish between questions and statements in the way that speakers of standard English do. That makes me slightly curious as to why we’re so sure he’s nervously asking us “Ain’t how that God planned it?” instead of rounding off the section by telling us emphatically–as his tone suggests–“Ain’t how (that) God planned it!” The unreduced vowel in “that” doesn’t seem to me so remarkable in this context, but, as usual, I’m looking forward to someone explaining to me why I’m wrong.

(Re other, more recent examples of this idiom: Googling “how that God” throws up a large number, including Sister Debbie, an ex-transgendered lesbian (“I had seen how that God had changed his life, being that he was a practicing homosexual, and that the Lord had done miracles in his life, giving him a wife, and three beautiful kids, and he preaches the Gospel at church, and in the local prisons”), an account of “how that God led His people out of the S[eventh] D[ay] A[dventist] Church (Egypt)”, George Fox in 1679 urging the Quakers to “teach and instruct blacks and indians, and others, how that God doth pour out his spirit upon all flesh in these days of the new covenant”, and the following disturbing report:

We came across a man carrying two beer bottles. He put them down and we began to converse with him and how that God could deliver him from drinking. After talking to him for awhile he asked how he could be delivered from drinking and we were able to share with him the gospel message. One of the guys in our group even offered to buy back the bottles so that he wouldn’t finish them and before the exchange could happen the man broke them on the ground and then removed his shirt and said that he needed to be punished for his drinking. Our group had the opportunity to share with him that no matter how bad he thought he was or the deed of drinking was, the Lord still loved him.

There’s a lot of it around, but don’t anyone try that kind of rubbish on me.)

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  1. Ain’t I’m a stinkah
    I think Mark’s onto something when he writes that “ain’t can be a sort of phrase-initial marker of questions and exclamations”. (Blah blah blah the obligatory links to previous relevant posts blah blah blah …)…

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