Domestic class rebellion: a good haircut ruint

(Not a good walk spoiled, but a good haircut ruined.)

Kids often rebel, boldly or subtly, against their parents on norms associated with social class, ethnicity, propriety, gender, and the like. Here’s a Bizarro kid going against his working-class dad:

[Don’t write me about the stick of dynamite on top of the medicine cabinet, the piece of pie on the floor, or the eyeball on the sink counter. These are merely recurring inscrutable Bizarro symbols, as described (but mostly not explained) here:

Most Bizarro cartoons include an eyeball (the Eyeball of Observation), a piece of pie (the Pie of Opportunity), a rabbit (the Bunny of Exuberance), an alien in a spaceship (the Flying Saucer of Possibility), the abbreviation “K2” (referring to his children Kermit and Krapuzar), a crown (the Crown of Power), a stick of dynamite (the Dynamite of Unintended Consequences), a shoe (the Lost Loafer), an arrow (The Arrow of Vulnerability), a fish tail (The Fish of Humility) and/or an upside down bird (the Inverted Bird) hidden somewhere in the cartoon. [Cartoonist Don]Piraro has begun indicating how many symbols are hidden in each strip with a number above his signature [3 in the case above].]

The father’s appearance and speech are intended to place him socially, according to stereotypes of class, region, and gender (at least). In particular, there’s his mullet haircut, the focus of the cartoon. According to the Wikipedia entry:

The mullet remains a moderately popular hairstyle among certain social groups in various Western countries — Spain most especially. In the U.S. and Canada, the mullet is particularly associated with blue collar men, fans of country and heavy metal music, and ice hockey players. [Discussion of the mullet’s social semantics in the U.K., Australia, Sweden, and Finland follows.]

My focus, however, is on matters of language. For instance, Mullet Dad uses one syntactic construction stereotypically associated with the the working class and labeled non-standard, absence of an auxiliary ‘ve, in

What(‘ve) you done, boy?
You(‘ve) gone ‘n ruint a perfectly good mullet!

and one often so associated, the go and V construction, though in fact it’s a widespread informal usage.

Now I’m going to narrow my focus down still further, to a bit of morphology in the cartoon, the non-standard PSP form ruint (for standard ruined). Two subtopics: the morphological details and the social distribution of the form.

Morphological details. The variant ruint is used for both PST (“Yesterday he ruint his hair”) and PSP (“Now, dammit, he done ruint his hair”) in the varieties that have it. The default for English verbs (all completely regular verbs, and many irregular ones as well) is to have identical PST and PSP; in the current discussion, I won’t need to treat the two grammatical categories separately, so I’ll refer to them together just as “PST” (in other contexts, I’d have to use the more awkward label “PST/PSP”).

The variant ruint is a “t-PST”, a name that alludes both to pronunciation and to spelling. A t-PST variant is in competition with the regular, or default, PST variant (ruined, in this case), which in deference to the spelling I’ll refer to as the “ed-PST”.

Standard English has a fair-sized collection of verbs with t-PST and there are several subsets. Below I give somewhat reorganized versions of the lists in the Cambridge Grammar of English (pp. 1600-3), where they are intended as inventories of forms in standard English. (“R” marks verbs that CGEL says have ed-PST alternatives, and “(R)” additional verbs that have such alternatives for me, though they aren’t so marked in CGEL.)

1. burn R, dwell R, earn* R, learn R, smell R, spell R, spill R, spoil R [*CGEL says this one has a t-PST in pronunciation, but is nevertheless spelled earned]

2. [with “shortening” of /i(:)/ in the BSE/PRS to /ɛ/] creep (R), leap (R), sleep, sweep (R), weep (R); deal, dream R, keep, kneel (R), lean R, mean

3. [with t replacing a final d of the BSE/PRS] bend, build, lend, rend (R), send, spend

4. [with invariant final t, same as the BSE/PRS] hit, put, etc.

5. leave, lose

Social distribution. Already you can see how complex these usages can get: several PSTs of verbs in lists 1 and 2 are regionally associated (with the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, etc.) — for me, learnt, smeltspelt, spilt (except in spilt milk), and spoilt sound distinctly British, for example — and the PSTs from list 4 show a very complex pattern (briefly summarized in CGEL) of regional usage. Where there is variation within the standard English of a region, the alternants often differ significantly in style or register.

Beyond variation within standard varieties, there are non-standard t-PSTs, notably feart, helt (corresponding to standard held), and killt/kilt — and ruint (which is where we came in). These particular non-standard variants are all, historically, “irregularizations”, reshapings of regular forms to fit subregular patterns (in lists 1 and 3). Two them, helt and kilt, have a few scattered cites in the OED, but feart and ruint don’t have even that. I don’t know if any of these forms are attested in British dialect materials from relatively recent times (say, 1850 on), but they certainly have been alive in American materials, especially from Appalachian sources.

[A note on non-standard verb forms: these are are sometimes regularizations of older irregular verbs (in which case critics disparage them as “lazy”, on the grounds that the speakers won’t be bothered to learn the correct, irregular, forms), sometimes irregularizations of older regular verbs (in which case critics still disparage them, on the grounds that they are ugly innovations perturbing the beauty and regularity of the language), and the history is different for different verbs and different social groups. Probably on balance the folk tendency is for regularization, but things can go either way.

And the very same morphological pattern can be associated with standard speech at one place and time, with non-standard speech at another place and time. So PST learnt occurs with some frequency in non-standard regional American English, as well as in educated formal British English. The patterns are “just stuff”, and can carry all sorts of social meanings.]

As things stand now, in the U.S. ruint seems to be perceived as part of a stereotype of Appalachian English and AAVE, and as far as I can tell, these two sources do in fact supply a great many of the occurrences. The DARE entry for the verb ruin identifies the form as chiefly from the South, South Midlands, TX, and OK, with a few scattered occurrences from the Middle Atlantic states, and with cites from 1884 on (with “to be in er fa’r way ter git ruint” ‘to be on the road to ruin’), including a 1932 Tobacco Road quote (“It’s already ruint, sister”), 1974 and 1976 quotes from books on Appalachian Mountain speech (“They ruint me”, “Someone spilled ink on my new dress and ruint it”), and of course plenty of material from its interviews. There are both PST and PSP examples.

There are monosyllabic pronunciations of the standard variant — spelled rooned — and of the t variant (sometimes spelled roont), and monosyllabic pronunciations with intrusive r, both of the standard variant (spelled rurned) and of the t variant (spelled rurnt or rernt).

On the AAVE side of things, we have Johnny Hodges’ song “Ruint”, from the 1959 album Side by Side, by Hodges with Duke Ellington. Ellington grew up in Washington DC (a bit north of main ruint territory), and Hodges was born in Cambridge MA (way north of it). But don’t get your linguistic hopes up: it’s an instrumental.

From more recent times, Wordnik has a number of contributed examples of ruint, including one with done ruint, but of course we can’t glean sociolinguistic information from these contributions.

At this point we reach a lot of examples where it’s hard to tell whether an appearance of ruint is (a representation of) ordinary speech or whether it’s a kind of  knowing quotation of folk speech, white or black. Two examples:

Sports columnist Bob Smith (definitely a white guy in the photo) in the Fort Wayne IN Journal Gazette, headline on 8/29/09 story:

Soccer has ruint my mind

And a 3/11/10 blog piece on hip-hop by Panama Jackson (definitely a black guy, to judge from the content as well as the form of the posting), entitled, in a great flourish of AAVE:

Anniversary Deez: Songs That Done Been Ruint

Then to the final development, naturalization of the non-standard variant by speakers outside the core communities, who treat it playfully as a linguistic resource, as in this Arlo and Janis strip:

Cartoonist Jimmy Johnson’s comments:

Yes, “ruint” means “spoiled,” particularly “badly spoiled.” We think it’s an improvement over “ruined.” Considering the many irregularities in the English language, I don’t think this is extreme. Try it! You’ll see what we’uns mean.

3 Responses to “Domestic class rebellion: a good haircut ruint”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    I’ve never encountered “ruint” before, but I can attest that “kilt” is alive and well in Ireland. Also “tolt” for “told”, especially in “toltcha”.

    For me, a child is “spoilt”, whereas meat is “spoiled”. A cat may be either, depending.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To molloymooly: ah, I’d missed tolt (not in the OED, though dialectal telt is there). The relevant volume of DARE is not out yet, alas.

    In any case, tolt seems to be pretty well attested in the Appalachians, and not just in “tolcha” for “tolja” (where the final stop is merged with the initial palatal approximant of you) — in things like “I tolt ‘im”.

    Maybe some of the Appalachian items — kilt, tolt, others — could be part of the Scots-Irish heritage, though they could be independent innovations (by modeling STs on other t-PSTs, or through spontaneous final devoicing, as in things like variant (re)tart for the slur (re)tard).

  3. The music of ruin « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] The music of ruin By arnold zwicky I was checking my iTunes to see if I already had a version of the “Turkish March” from Beethoven’s incidental music to The Ruin of Athens, Op. 113 (I’ll get to why I was engaged in this search later). Turns out I had four tracks with ruin in the track name or the album name: “Ruint”, by Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington, from Side by Side (see my ruint posting); […]

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