You’ve Got To Be In It To Be In it, Innit?

The tag question ‘innit?’ seems to be found increasingly in the speech of a younger generation of British English speakers, with the final consonant pronounced as a glottal stop rather than the [t] suggested by the spelling. It is invariant for both person and number, can follow any verb and seems only ever to be uttered with a falling intonation. Much of the influence of other languages on English has been brought about through inward invasion and proselytizing on one hand and outward conquest on the other. ‘Innit?’, by contrast, is largely the result of the more benign process of immigration, seemingly having its origin in the languages of those from Asia who have settled in Britain over the past 50 years. Hindi ‘haina’ (‘is no?’) has been suggested as one of its roots. I have heard invariant ‘isn’t it?’ myself in Sri Lanka.

If the seed was Asian, it has found fertile soil in Britain. Invariant tag questions are not new in English. ‘What?’ was once an all-purpose tag, as in this 1906 citation from Katherine Mansfield: ‘Good-bye, Miss Thornton, awfully jolly evening – what?’ In some dialects even invariant ‘innit?’ may already have been established before the recent growth in its use through the possible influence of Welsh. In any case, ‘Bit cold today, ‘innit?’ is as likely as ‘Bit cold today, isn’t it?’ Invariant ‘innit?’ can thus be seen as the grafting of a foreign construction onto an existing English one.

If invariant ‘innit?’ shows a grammatical influence rather than the more common lexical one, there are precedents, if we accept pronouns as well as verb forms as grammatical aspects of language. Old Norse, the language of the Viking invaders of the eighth and ninth centuries, replaced the Old English third person plural pronouns with ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘theirs’, and ‘are’ became the third person plural form of ‘be’ If they were accepted because of the prestige associated with the invaders then the appeal of ‘innit’ derives from the opposite end of the social spectrum: it has become particularly popular among those of a chav disposition. This may partly explain resistance to it among an older and more conservative generation, although there is nothing linguistically unusual about invariant tags. They are found in French, (‘n’est-ce pas?’ and ‘hein?’) German (‘nicht wahr?’ and ‘oder?’) and Arabic (‘mush Hayk?’).

Those who abhor such developments might reasonably be charged with linguistic nimbyism. Even those who accept language change may not like it when it occurs in their own lifetimes. In ‘Jolly Wicked, Actually: The 100 Words That Make Us English’ Tony Thorne suggests that ‘[innit] may eventually come to influence mainstream English’. Whether it does so remains to be seen, although, if the Urban Dictionary is to be believed it is already moving into areas beyond the tag question: a mark of affirmation in ‘innit tho’ and even a predicative adjective in ‘wow, those shoes are so innit’ . In another 1000 years, or sooner, our descendants, if there are any, may think no more of it than we do of those ancient Scandinavian interlopers.


2 responses to “You’ve Got To Be In It To Be In it, Innit?

  1. Yale Wale

    This is so awesome, innit?


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