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.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why "Cranky Linguist?"

Teaching anthropology and linguistics probably makes a person more susceptible to crankiness than does teaching most other subjects. Anthropologists and linguists develop analytic (scientific) models or theories about humans: their nature, evolution, culture, language, and so on. These models frequently contradict the folk models that our students have acquired during their enculturation, and which they bring with them to the university.

Folk models can be very resistant to change, because they feel "natural" to the people who hold them. When you challenge them, you challenge the natural order people have constructed for themselves. And every generation of students brings these folk models to school with them.

A few linguistic and anthropological things that make me cranky every semester:
  • "Languages" are better than "dialects"
  • a "double negative" really means a "positive"
  • words like the and a are "adjectives"
  • believing that ancestors can talk to you in dreams is "superstition," but believing that a wafer turns into the body of a man who may or may not have lived 2,000 years ago is "religion"
Now, some folk beliefs are pretty harmless. The idea that the table in front of the classroom is "solid" can be refuted by physics, but not only does it not hurt anyone, it actually helps us get through our day: I feel confident setting my water bottle on it. But some folk beliefs, like the idea prevalent in US culture that newborn infants should sleep apart from their mothers, have consequences that are not always good.

In some of the following posts, I'll deal more in depth with these and other sources of my crankiness.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Here we go...

This is my first post on this blog. I set the blog up to provide myself with a convenient place to write about things that I might otherwise never get around to, the sorts of things you talk about with family, friends, and colleagues, or think about while you're trying to fall asleep, but then never do anything with.

I've chosen a blog format for several reasons. Since I know my writing will be publicly visible, perhaps I'll be a little more careful with it than if I were just writing on my own computer. Also, whatever feedback I get will help me refine ideas that might be only half-baked when I first post them. Another bonus of blogging is the chance to meet and interact with new, as well as old, friends and colleagues.

Anthropology and linguistics have, I believe, important things to tell us about human nature, human history, and human problems. For this reason, hot-button issues such as "race," politics, religion, and human evolution will no doubt show up frequently. Sometimes these topics will pop up as a result of current events; sometimes, they will be triggered by readings, things that happen in my classes, or my simply thinking about them while walking in the woods. Most of the time, I will attempt to locate my thoughts within the larger context of anthropological knowledge, in other words to provide sound reasons for why I think the way I do rather than simply offering unsupported "opinion" (although that might happen now and then).

For now, my blog is open for anyone who registers to leave comments. Please stay tuned...