Friday, February 27, 2009

"Double Negatives"

A clarification. In my last post (also only my second post) I mentioned that one thing that makes me cranky is students coming to linguistics insisting, and continuing to insist even after my brilliant teaching on the subject, that "a double negative means a positive." I meant this to apply in an English speaking context, not to other natural languages in which a double negative might indeed mean a positive.

In English, "double negatives," or, as linguists prefer to call it, negative agreement or negative concord, goes back all the way to Anglo-Saxon where we find sentences like the following, written out lazily in modern spelling:
  • Ne bith thaer naenig aelo gebrowen mid Estum.
    not be there not-any beer brewed among (the) Estonians.
It was only in 1762 that English Bishop Robert Lowth proposed and publicized the "rule" that double negatives should be avoided on the grounds that they violate the laws of formal logic. Teachers soon began trying to enforce the "rule," but it was a losing battle, as we can see today in the speech of all but the most anal-retentive native English speakers.

Bishop Lowth was able to do this in part because English does offer its speakers choices:
  • I don't see anything.
  • I don't see nothing.
  • I see nothing.
But many other languages, such as Spanish, do not (nor does French, which one would think Lowth would have been familiar with):
  • Yo no veo nada.
    I not see nothing
    'I don't see anything'
Given the history of prescriptive grammarians like Lowth atempting to rid English of negative agreement, I think there is reason to suspect that negative concord is the "natural" or default setting for natural languages, but more of that in a future post.


  1. If they really believed that, they'd accept Prissy's "I don't know nothin' about birthin' no babies!", since *three* negatives are not a positive but a negative.

  2. You may be familiar with the joke (courtesy internet):

    A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day. "In English," he said, "a double negative forms a positive. In some languages though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative.

    However," he pointed out, "there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative."

    A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."

  3. I have heard that joke. Of course, here it's the intonation that triggers the negative interpretation; the same "yeah, right" with a different pitch contour is affirmative.


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