bestnom1000x50

Awkward journalistic observation of the day

In an LA Times article that was reprinted in today's Globe, reporter Richard Fausset speculates on the implications of the use of "ain't" by Anh Cao, a Vietnamese-American challenger to Congressman William Jefferson, who's black:

Anh "Joseph" Cao, who hopes to be the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, was helping a TV interviewer with the pronunciation of his name It's not "cow" but "gow," he explained recently, with a hard G.

"You know, 'Cao' means 'tall,' " added the Republican candidate, who stands 5 feet 2 inches. "And if you notice, I ain't that tall."

The "ain't" was a departure for an otherwise formal man - a playful, deliberate shift into the local vernacular and an acknowledgment, perhaps, that this rising star in New Orleans's Vietnamese community will have to charm black voters if he hopes to defeat the scandal-plagued but resilient incumbent, Representative William J. Jefferson.

Fausset goes on to note that Louisiana's Second Congressional District is majority black. In fact, black voters greatly outnumber whites, 64 percent to 30 percent.

That said, I wonder: Did Cao use "ain't" to cater to black voters, or to try to sound Southern? Or, more precisely, to sound like a Southerner from a specific socioeconomic background--and not like a Vietnamese immigrant?

Personally, I've always thought of the usage of "ain't" as a class-based thing, not a race-based one. And I'm not alone: consider this overview from the 1996 American Heritage Book of English Usage: 

[A]in't was to receive a barrage of criticism in the 19th century for having no set sequence of words from which it can be contracted and for being “a vulgarism,” that is, a term used by the lower classes. At the same time ain’t’s uses were multiplying to include is not, has not, and have not. It may be that these extended uses helped provoke the negative reaction. Whatever the case, the criticism of ain’t by usage commentators and teachers has not subsided, and the use of ain’t has come to be regarded as a mark of ignorance. Use it at your peril.       

 But despite all the attempts to ban it, ain’t continues to appear in the speech of ordinary folks. Even educated and upper-class speakers see that ain’t has no substitute in fixed expressions like Say it ain’t so, You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie, and You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

 Now that I've bloviated, let's cut to the chase: did Fausset screw up or not?

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