It’s in the OED, Innit?

Scrabble boardTaking a break from the lengthy posts I’ve been guilty of lately, I’d like to mention the big dialect news of this past week: the addition of innit to the Collins Official Scrabble Words compilation.

Innit, for those unaquainted with British dialect words, is a contraction of “isn’t it” (it contracts the already contracted). Part of what offends the anti-innit crowd, I’m guessing, is that the word isn’t used in a strictly grammatical way. For example, although the word is”logical” in a sentence like …

It’s a gloomy day, innit?

innit has increasingly adopted some more unusual uses. A Google search of the word, for example, reveals the following:

We’re British, Innit.
She’s well out of order, innit?
I was just joking, innit!

So the implicit “is” replaces any conjugation of “to be:”–was, am, are, etc–while the implicit “it” replaces any pronoun–I, he, she, they. Not such a grammatical atrocity when you think about it. It’s simpler than having to remember permutations along the lines of “arnwe,” “inshe,” or “inni.”

You can probably guess my opinion. Innit is a real word (it’s in the OED), just as valid as isn’t, ain’t or shan’t. Why is there debate about this?

The only objection I see is that innit is often used in a grammatically “wrong” manner. But people fill their sentences with far more illogical word uses: for example, the extraneous uses of “like,” “right?” and “you know?” None of these words or phrases are invalidated because of it. Just because the word is used “incorrectly” doesn’t mean it is incorrect in and of itself.

Of course, this being a British word, some columnist at The Guardian had to write a meandering “opinion piece” about it, with the choice quote:

From an aesthetic standpoint, however, “innit” remains an abomination.

By the way, this is an article otherwise defending the choice to include the word. Apparently we had to throw a bone to the prescriptivist crowd.  Sigh.

But I digress. You probably have some opinions, innit?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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34 Responses to It’s in the OED, Innit?

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    “From an aesthetic standpoint, however, ‘innit’ remains an abomination.”

    There’ll always be an England …

    • If you follow the link you’ll see the author of that little gem is in fact American. Are you telling us this is a more absurd piece of linguistic snobbery than one would find in, say, the US media?

      • trawicks says:

        I’m aware the author is an American (although you may be replying to Amy here). And in the States, we have more than our share of insipid op-ed pieces. That being said, this article exemplifies a certain type of insipid editorial that I find more common in the British press: long, digressive, and purposefully contradictory. Although in the age of Fox News, I don’t want to suggest our own standard of journalism are much to write home about …

        We have our own “linguistic snobbery” in the American media (and certainly American culture). But we don’t seem to air it in public as much: it’s more attitudinal, less overt. I believe we’re no more tolerant than Brits in this regard. I sometimes believe we’re worse.

        But frankly, I have a hard time imagining an American newspaper with the Guardian’s stature and politics running a piece with a statement like that. These are just my impressions, mind you, but such attitudes seem more acceptable in polite discourse in the UK than in the US.

      • Amy Stoller says:

        Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, … “The idea that languages are threatened by the inclusion of new words is as foolishly nativist as the idea that exogamy threatens bloodlines. What may be threatened by admitting new words are class prerogatives based on exclusive access to standard forms – and from a democratic perspective, that’s not a bad thing.” Innit, she added, however, is still an abomination.

        I don’t know whether the self-contradicting Prof. Churchill is American or English. But you are right, of course, Harry – we have no shortage of language snobbery in the US.

  2. Cclinton says:

    In Guy Deutscher’s “The Unfolding of Language” he talks about a similar British question tag marker in the making: the use of “at all” in polite questions (For example, if you are at the grocery store you might be asked “do you want a bag, at all?”)

  3. Sarang says:

    My innitial response is strongly favorable. (Is “innit” becoming the British equiv. of Canadian “eh” — a synecdoche for the dialect?)

  4. I.M. says:

    ‘Innit’ is not restricted to dialects in England, nor is it (as far as I know) restricted to sentences where the main verb is a form of ‘to be’. I have encountered it in the speech of people from the Nicola Valley whose traditional language is Thompson Salish. They also say ‘izzit’ for positive sentences, and it’s a general tag question, presumably standing in for a general tag question in Thompson Salish. I was under the impression that it was a general tag question in England as well, but I don’t actually think I’ve run across enough examples to be sure.

    • trawicks says:

      I.M.

      There’s a commenter below who mentions that it is also found in the speech of First Nations/American Indian groups. It’s probably an unrelated phenemon, though (it’s easy to see how “innit” could be coined independently by different groups).

      @CClinton,

      Interesting about “at all.” We use that in America as well–I think I’ve said something along the lines of “do you want something to drink at all?” before.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      Can you give us an example where the verb “to be” is not involved?

  5. AL says:

    I was about to object to the “grammatically wrong” cases like “We’re British, innit” until you brought up “like” and “right.” I’m like, totally guilty of those.

  6. Marc L says:

    Trawicks:
    The Shorter OED lists it as an interjection and colloquialism, and does not give its etymology, largely because it ias a contraction of “isn’t it,” but I suspect “innit” has been around for a very, very long time in England as a tag line. In a way it is no different from the use of a phrase like “you know?,” at the end of a statement in conversation as a means of seeking agreement. And it’s done in other languages. In Dutch they say “niet waar?,” in German, “nicht Wahr?,” (not true), in French, “n’est-ce pas?,” in Italian, “non e vero?,” in Spanish, “no es verdad?” and so forth. I think the difference now, and the notice “innit” is getting lies in its alternate uses within conversation as an intensifier within sentences, as well as a bridge similar to “like” or “umm,” where the speaker uses it to gather his thoughts before proceeding.

    • trawicks says:

      I might be wrong, but I believe I read somewhere that it’s been around for a few centuries. Hard to say though. As per the commenter above talking about a British Columbian first nations group that uses the word, it can probably arise independently.

    • Francesca says:

      @ Marc L. in Italian, no? is actually more common than non è vero?.

      • Marc L says:

        Francesca:
        “Non” in Italian in this phrase as in the others in German, etc. stands for not, as in “not true?”

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    The phrase/word “innit” is part of American Indian usage on the Spokane Reservation (or so I would guess from Sherman Alexie’s writing).

    In South Africa I heard a similar expression: “Is it?” This phrase was also used in places where it didn’t quite fit grammatically either.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      The word was pronounced “IS it?” in South Africa. Great stress on the first syllable.

  8. dan says:

    Interesting stuff. For a while in the 1990s people (media commentators, rather than linguists, I suspect) were arguing that it was an import from Indian-English as it was used a lot by second/third generation Asian English teenagers and seemed to fit the model of a grammatical error that was occurring (i.e. second language learners not realising the tag was expected to vary with person and verb) but that tends to ignore the fact that it has been knocking around in other versions of English for a long time.

    I can certainly remember “in’t it” and “ain’t it” from London and home counties during my teens in the 1980s and I’m pretty sure “innit” was being used by white teens well before it became associated with Asian teens in the 1990s.

    It’s more recently been used in a non-tag question way as a response to tag, so you get quite a lot of conversations which go something like:

    Speaker A “She’s boom innit?”
    Speaker B “Innit though”

  9. Rhys says:

    In Cardiff, Wales it’s pronounced “inn-EH” and “is it?” becomes “iss-EH?” with rising intonation. Whereas in most other parts of the UK it’s pronounced “innit” with a glottal stop.

  10. trawicks says:

    @Charles,

    It’s funny, right after writing this post, I briefly recalled the word being used in Smoke Signals. A commenter above mentions it being also used among First Nations people in nearby British Columbia.

    @Dan,

    I believe the Asian theory is that “innit” derives from Hindi “haina,” a tag phrase of similar meaning. I think that’s a stretch, though.

  11. Veronica Mitchell says:

    “Innit” and “dinnit” are also common in central Kansas. I heard them a lot when I lived there.

    • Veronica Mitchell says:

      Ya know, I take that back. Now that I think about it, folks there say “idnit” and “didnit”. The d doesn’t really get lost.

      • Greg R says:

        If those people talk anything like me (I’m from the Midwest too), then I think the /d/ is there, as you said, but it is usually an unreleased [d].

        • Erin Doherty says:

          Minnesotan, here.
          I’m not quite as familiar with some of the terminology of linguistics, but:
          In my experience, we don’t say “dinnit.” We say “dih-nt,” in much the same way that we’d say “mih-en” instead of “mitten.” I don’t think that’s quite the same as an unreleased consonant, but am not sure what it’s called.

        • Greg R says:

          Well, you say it differently than I do then.

  12. Stan says:

    People place a lot of stock in their instinctive aesthetic responses, not least to words and phrases that rub them up the wrong way. Abomination is a great one. Recently, while investigating people’s opinions on different than/from/to, I encountered a novelist who called different than an “abominable phrase” that spread through America “like a pestilence”. Unclean!

    Along the same lines as innit, an old friend of mine (Londonish) used to say “we was”. I found it charming, but some people would object on the ill-founded basis that it’s illogical.

  13. trawicks says:

    @Veronica,

    Interesting you bring “idn’t” up, because like “innit,” this appears to be word that arises in different parts of the English speaking world somewhat independently. Although it’s know primarily as a feature of the American South and African American Vernacular English, it can also be found in Dublin and East Coast Ireland.

    @Stan,

    I find it really funny when words formerly applied to catastrophic events (plagues, genocides, etc.) are instead used in relation to language. For example, a few years back, when Claire Danes played Eliza Doolittle in an American revival of Pygmalion, a theatre critic termed her Cockney an “aural atrocity.” One imagines Barber’s Adagio for Strings playing in the background as the camera slowly pans over a blood-soaked battlefield of ill-placed diphthongs…

  14. Richard says:

    Of course, in French, n’est-ce pas is perfectly correct regardless of the verb or the person or number of the subject in the sentence you’re making into a question.

    innit is just taking the same role in English.

  15. Erin Doherty says:

    I’m thinking about what role class/socioeconomic status plays in the objections. A slang contraction like this typically originates in poorer or otherwise marginalized communities of practice or regions. So, who gets to decide what words are acceptable? Who gets to decide what is good or bad grammar? Interesting stuff…

  16. Stuart says:

    What’s so wrong with the writer of that Grauniad piece saying that the word is an aesthetic abomination? That’s clearly a subjective statement, and if the article was not denying the legitimacy of the word itself, I don’t see why expressing an opinion on how it looks and/or sounds is so bad. It’s certainly more honest that prescriptivist attempts to dress up their pet hates with phony “reasons”.

  17. trawicks says:

    @Richard,

    That’s a good analogy! I had totally forgotten about n’est-ce pas.

    @Erin,

    Socioeconomic class always plays a role in objections like these, sadly. Poverty is part of various false equations involving language, dress, and circumstances of living. Almost any working- or lower-class dialect feature has at some point been condemned. I don’t believe “innit” is any different.

    @Stuart,

    I’m an extremist about this, but my feeling is that judgements of this sort are never “aesthetic,” but bely prejudices about class (as in the UK), race (as in America), or age (both nations). Don’t get me wrong: I’ve made similar judgements. But it’s a game I think we all need to at least try to get out of.

  18. Amy Stoller says:

    Interesting you bring “idn’t” up, because like “innit,” this appears to be word that arises in different parts of the English speaking world somewhat independently. Although it’s know primarily as a feature of the American South and African American Vernacular English, it can also be found in Dublin and East Coast Ireland.

    Idn’t, wadn’t (or idden, wadden) and so forth are features of Southwestern BrE as well.

  19. Amy Stoller says:

    Finished posting too soon! I meant to add that they don’t seem to be used in the same way as innit, at least so far as I know (which may not be far enough).

    I certainly remember a different sort of London tag in use only a couple of decades ago:

    Detective: Where is Col. Mustard?
    Miss Scarlet: I don’t know, do I?

    Nowadays Miss Scarlet would undoubtedly be likelier to say: I don’t know, innit?

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an abomination (!), but I will say this usage always brings me up short. I attribute this to my personal old-fogeydom.

  20. Bede says:

    I’m in favor of this decision, but mind I’m also in favor of destandardized english spelling. If they’ven’t already been made permissible, “dunno”, “Imma”, “itta”, “gimme”, “gonna”, “gotcha”, “musta”, “prolly”, “sorta”, “wanna”, and many other common dialectal contractions “shoulda” been.

    >>We’re British, innit.
    I always assumed this to be a rhetorical tag question, or some sort of expression of emphasis, or intensification, or calming, or whatever emotion that happened to fleet the speaker’s mind, or just filler. Then again, I’m no Lunnoner. It’s also worth noting the West Country variation that is “innat”, a contraction of “isn’t that”.