I was just watching a thing on TV where a kid was criticizing the grammar in the song “The Mighty Quinn.” He repeated sarcastically, “You’ve not seen nothing“? Thing is, that just means “[You have] not seen anything like the Mighty Quinn!” where the writer substitutes nothing idiomatically for anything. That seems perfectly grammatical to me.
I lived in a couple of working class families here and there, (until finally being plunged into the permanent underclass), where I was expected to speak in a manner they referred to as “correctly.” They tried to be strict with little, arbitrary conventions. Put forks on the left. Use a little fork for one thing and a bigger one for another. Call someone Mister or Ms Whatever until they say otherwise. Utter pleasantries upon meeting someone, especially for the first time, with a choice of topic and in a tone of voice suitable to the circumstances of your relative social station and the situation at hand. There were others to be sure. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with practicing them “in polite company.”
All this was to groom us for a supposed opportunity to break into the Middle Class. It boiled down to a paltry list of habits they called “manners.” A basic core few of them at most, compared to the hundreds of little rules middle class kids internalize early in life, that it’s nearly impossible for them to break free of even if they want to. Like the law student who became visibly agitated and distracted by my wearing short sleeves in winter, forcefully saying “Short sleeves are out!” Or the one that was irritated having to get $20 in quarters from the change machine just to make one photocopy: I said, “Guess you’ll have change for the laundry!” She became incensed and haughtily proclaimed, “I’ve never set foot in a laundromat in my life!” Or the young student employee who raised her voice and informed me urgently that “You can’t wear socks like that with tennis shoes!”
Just around that time, someone published a paper claiming that it’s harder to change social classes in America than it is to move between the infamous castes of India. It’s not just about habits, or even employment, but abilities, independence, an entrepreneurial attitude toward life, all cultivated over a lifetime. Beliefs and attitudes that sink so deep you’re not even aware of their influence on your thoughts and actions. It underlies your identity, your whole experience of the world. It’s a total subculture of its own. The odds of a person like me ever getting a life transplant that complete are just about one in fuck-all.
Given all that, the nearly identical sentiment You ain’t seen nothin’ yet strikes my ear as way more fucked up, using the dreaded ain’t, which someone once told me is a contraction of “am not” or “are not,” that only “unsavory types” use. Hence, “You [are not] seen anything yet.” Ugly, right? But that’s not everything.
First off, it’s a familiar (if overused) idiomatic turn of phrase whose place in the American vernacular is practically hallowed. As such is makes its own grammar. And the question⏤is “ain’t” is or is “ain’t” ain’t a real word in the first place⏤was settled long before silly working class prigs made it a thing. The really cool etymology geeks on Wikipedia say “have not” as a meaning of ain’t developed independently from the one that means “are not,” appearing for the first time in dictionaries nearly 200 years ago. The problem isn’t that ain’t isn’t a proper word, or that you ain’t is a misuse of it, if it is; it’s actually a homonym, not a breach of grammatical rationality. So You ain’t seen nothin’ yet is perfectly good grammar too.
Of course if you want to find atrocious (rather than merely idiomatic) English in a pop song, you won’t have to look far. But that’s an idea for another post.
Note: “Grammar” is the abstract, underlying structure of a linguistic utterance. “Good grammar“ is clear, elegant, logical, aesthetically agreeable, internally consistent, reasonably expressive of the speaker’s intent, and generally in accord with long-established, agreed upon linguistic conventions and habits. Clearly there’s more to consider, especially in the details. And I’m only talking about grammar. Style and rhetoric sold separately.