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"Don't", "wouldn't", "couldn't" and "isn't" are all contractions of "do not", "would not", "could not" and "is not"... So what's "won't" a contraction of?

It appears to be "will not", but if so, why isn't it "willn't"? (And if there's no good reason, has it ever been "willn't" at any point in history?)

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6 Answers 6

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Wiktionary says:

Abbreviation of wollnot or woll + not, negations of archaic form of will.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology agrees:

XVII. contr. of wonnot, assim. of wol not

As to other forms, Etymonline only mentions wynnot:

first recorded mid-15c. as wynnot, later wonnot (1580s) before the modern form [won't] emerged 1660s.

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Great answer! Now I have one less thing bugging me when I can't sleep :) –  Django Reinhardt Nov 1 '10 at 12:34
    
If only they taught this stuff in schools. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 21 '10 at 14:26
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@Mr. Shiny: They do if you take German. –  dmckee Jan 2 '11 at 1:42
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Won’t actually has a pretty interesting and complex history. Ultimately it does come from a contraction of will and not, but it all happened in a rather roundabout way.

It all started off with the Old English verb willan/wyllan, meaning to will, wish, or want. Even in Old English it was used occasionally to denote a future intent. “Ic wille gan” could mean “I want to go” or “I will go”, depending on context.

Now, the thing about negatives in Old English is that they were often reduced:

na(w)ðer = nahwæðer = ne + hwæðer
neither = not + whether

næfre = ne + æfre
never = not + ever

nabbað = ne + habbað
haven’t = have + not

We nabbað naðor ne hlaf ne wæter.
We have neither bread nor water.

Not comes from naht via noht. Related to nawiht meaning naught, it originally meant in no way, but came to be used as an emphatic form of ne. Subsequently it became unstressed and supplanted ne altogether. This is an example of Jespersen’s Cycle.

All these things combined led to a new negative form of willan, wynnot. The past forms of willan began with wold-, which is where we get would. Under the influence of these forms and the related verb wol, wynnot became wonnot by the late 1500s.

Finally, the modern form won’t emerged by the 1660s as a result of reducing the final vowel in wonnot. It appears to be the first word so contracted; most of the other -n’t contractions we use today (can’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, &c.) arose in the 1700s, modelled after won’t. In modern English, cannot is the only uncontracted -not compound that survives.

As for the other contractions such as -’ll and -’ve, their history is just as long, though perhaps slightly less convoluted. But that’s a story for a different question. ;)

Also, remember that spelling in Old English was less standardised than in modern English. There were often several equally valid ways to spell the same word, especially when you took different accents and dialects into account. So sometimes it’s difficult to get a good historical account of pronunciation and usage changes. Still, as far as I can tell, this is basically how it went down.

Source: The Online Etymology Dictionary.

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+1 for great answer. I think that "I want to go" and "I will go" do still mean something very similar, but many people now use "I will" and "I shall" interchangeably. I'm sure I remember the following in a Jane Austen novel: "You will, but shall you?" Not exactly modern, but not old-english either. –  Martin Nov 28 '12 at 13:24
    
A minor quibble: nawiht is surely "no what" or "no whit", not "no way". Nowt and summat (< somewhat) are current where I live. –  Colin Fine Nov 28 '12 at 16:18
    
@ColinFine: Right, I was saying not meant in no way; it’s separate from but related to nowt ~ no whit ~ na whit ~ nawiht ~ nan wiht. –  Jon Purdy Nov 29 '12 at 21:47
    
Wikipedia says not derives from nawiht. I haven't the books it references to hand, so I can't check whether or not it accurately reports them. –  Colin Fine Dec 2 '12 at 11:16
    
Correction: Google books has it. –  Colin Fine Dec 2 '12 at 11:18
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It's a contraction of woll not.

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And what is 'woll' -- an old form of 'will'? Just curious. –  JAM Jun 16 '12 at 18:40
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@JAM: Yes, but there's rather more to it than that. If you're really interested, you'll need to read a history, preferably several histories, of the English language. It's not the sort of thing that's susceptible to a quick fix. –  Barrie England Jun 16 '12 at 18:48
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@JAM: this may elucidate matters further - english.stackexchange.com/questions/4521/… –  Qube Jun 16 '12 at 21:16
    
@Barrie England, can you suggest a history, preferably not too dry? –  JAM Jun 17 '12 at 3:19
    
@JAM: You might try ‘The Oxford History of English’, edited by Lynda Mugglestone. For the origins of English, there’s no better introduction than ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’ by Bruce Mitchell. The Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required) gives a detailed history of will in all its forms, running to some 500 lines. –  Barrie England Jun 17 '12 at 6:00
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A friend found this explanation of the etymology of "will" via Google Books. I found it interesting.

Will is from the Gothic wilgan, Saxon willan, Dutch willen, German wollen. Among the various writers cited, I find it written wil, wyl, wyll, wrill, wol, woll. In Scotland it is often, to this day, pronounced wull, and in some parts of England as if it were written wool! The past tense was variously written when used as an auxiliary, wold, wolde, wouldin, wulde, would. The German has present will, imperfect wolte. Now, as wol and will seem originally to have been the same in meaning, if not in every thing but spelling, and that difference perhaps merely arising from ignorance or conforming to a vicious pronunciation, it does not seem amiss to consider would as derived from will; it certainly is derived from wol, and is as certainly the past tense of will, the auxiliary, to which wol is equivalent, and with which it was interchangeably used.

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It was fairly common to form the negative of a word by swapping the first letter (if a consonant) with an "n", or simply adding an "n" if the word started with a vowel. Chaucer used the word nas to mean "ne was", or "was not". Nill was the contraction of "ne will", whence willy nilly meaning "willing or unwilling" (or "like it or not"). Nill was driven out by won't. There are many other examples that have survived — e.g., naught meaning "nothing" is the negative of aught meaning "anything of value". Neither is the negative of either.

The same thing happened in other European languages. Willy nilly in Latin is volens nolens. One and none are ullus and nullus. In Afrikaans iemand is "somebody", and niemand is "nobody", erens means "somewhere", and nerens means "nowhere".

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Willn't is an archaic version that remains in some dictionaries. I have no idea if it is in current use. Once I found it as a teenager, I very, very occasionally used it as a bit of a joke.

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