Double Negatives

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Re: Double Negatives

#61  Postby nunnington » Dec 22, 2011 12:21 pm

katja z

'Blurry' is very interesting, as there has been research into these kinds of 'syntactic blends' as they have been called. A simple example is 'different than', which presumably stems from the use of 'than' with comparatives, e.g. 'better than'. Of course, generations of teachers have taught that 'different than' is incorrect!

I think this came originally from Dwight Bolinger, and it famously goes on with mixed metaphors, e.g. 'page-burner', from 'page-turner' and something with 'burner', errm, 'after-burner'?

I think the consensus seems to be that a second negative is permitted, if it is somehow separated from the main clause, by intonation, or some other way. So it is not a true double negative?

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Re: Double Negatives

#62  Postby Evolving » Dec 22, 2011 12:32 pm

I have always assumed that "different than", an American construction, comes from the German "anders als" (as opposed to "verschieden von") and is one of myriad examples of how the German influx into America has changed the language there.

I have no evidence that I can point to, however!
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Re: Double Negatives

#63  Postby Zwaarddijk » Dec 22, 2011 12:33 pm

palindnilap wrote:Any interest in the evolutionary history of the double negation in French ? Because when it all started it was all but a double negation, it was an intensive. The story is a bit longish and might be a bit off-topic, that's why I am asking before typing.


Do tell, (not that I don't know the evolutionary histories thereof, but I think it important that people realize how such constructions come about)
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Re: Double Negatives

#64  Postby Zwaarddijk » Dec 22, 2011 12:40 pm

Why should we assume that negation in language is the same as boolean negation (as far as scope, etc, goes? It could just as well be some other logical operation of a similar nature, and I think anyone that demands that we behave as though it is boolean negation is required to show that it really is.

Due to the brain working as it does, it's fairly more natural for it to interpret negation as something that doesn't cancel out, and this is the case, it seems in most human languages
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Re: Double Negatives

#65  Postby katja z » Dec 22, 2011 12:53 pm

nunnington wrote:
I think this came originally from Dwight Bolinger, and it famously goes on with mixed metaphors, e.g. 'page-burner', from 'page-turner' and something with 'burner', errm, 'after-burner'?


I first thought this was a playful reference to the intensity of the reading experience, but on second thoughts it could well be a reference to speed (you can "burn (up) the kilometres", "burn up the motorway" etc.) - a way of saying that the book compels you to read fast. In either case, the blend is facilitated by the rhyme.

I think the consensus seems to be that a second negative is permitted, if it is somehow separated from the main clause, by intonation, or some other way. So it is not a true double negative?


I'd say this is a good rule of thumb. Although my impression is that the second negative has to be separated from the verb of the main clause with some other element (usually the object of a transitive verb). If the main clause ends with a verb, just intonation doesn't seem to be enough, as illustrated by my earlier example: "You're not marrying, never."
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Re: Double Negatives

#66  Postby katja z » Dec 22, 2011 1:03 pm

Evolving wrote:I have always assumed that "different than", an American construction, comes from the German "anders als" (as opposed to "verschieden von") and is one of myriad examples of how the German influx into America has changed the language there.

I have no evidence that I can point to, however!


I've no idea how likely that is - I've always assumed that it is formed by analogy to comparatives as nunnington said - but the two are not mutually exclusive; in fact one (in this case the linguistic habits of immigrants carried over to their newly acquired language) can reinforce the other (formation by analogy) because it means that more speakers will select this new construction, giving it more chance to become mainstream.
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Re: Double Negatives

#67  Postby nunnington » Dec 22, 2011 2:56 pm

I think also possibly 'other than' is affecting the usage of 'different than', since 'other' and 'different' have rather similar meanings here, so the 'than' may be leaking from one to the other. Interesting that you can't say 'other from', but you can say 'different to' and 'different than' and 'different from'!

It's also possible that 'different than' is an old construction in English, for that you need to consult a very good dictionary.
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Re: Double Negatives

#68  Postby nunnington » Dec 22, 2011 3:03 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:Why should we assume that negation in language is the same as boolean negation (as far as scope, etc, goes? It could just as well be some other logical operation of a similar nature, and I think anyone that demands that we behave as though it is boolean negation is required to show that it really is.

Due to the brain working as it does, it's fairly more natural for it to interpret negation as something that doesn't cancel out, and this is the case, it seems in most human languages


Good point. It looks as if in some dialects negatives function as intensifiers, so don't cancel each other out. Thus 'I can't get no satisfaction' is more emphatic than 'I can't get any satisfaction'. But possibly in such dialects they just don't say 'I can't get any'. I don't know.
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Re: Double Negatives

#69  Postby palindnilap » Dec 22, 2011 3:36 pm

So only the people who already know about it want me to tell ? Never mind, it is such a nice story that I will tell it anyway. I am not a linguist, so feel free to correct me if I am not telling it correctly. I got it from a German who studied linguistics, but have yet to encounter a native french speaker who knew about it.

Old French used a single negation conveyed by the word "ne". Examples :

  • Je ne mange (I don't eat)
  • Je ne bois (I don't drink)
  • Je n'ecris (I don't write)
  • Je ne marche (I don't walk)

All those examples could be intensified by adjoining a direct complement, as in :

  • Je ne mange miette (I don't eat crumb, short for I don't even eat one crumb)
  • Je ne bois goutte (I don't drink drop, I don't even drink one drop)
  • Je n'ecris point (I don't write point, I don't even write one point)
  • Je ne marche pas (I don't walk step, I don't even walk one step)

For some reason, instead of using a relevant direct complement (maybe because such a complement could be hard or impossible to find for certain verbs), people started to used only "point" or "pas" whatever the verb. "point" or "pas" became compulsory, probably because the "ne" (with a mute e) could easily go unnoticed in the conversation (which can be a big oops), while the p-words were much harder to miss. But this made them effective double negations. For instance :

  • Je ne mange point (I don't eat point)
  • Je ne bois pas (I don't drink step)
  • Je n'ecris pas (I don't write step)
  • Je ne marche point (I don't walk point)

For some other reason, the form with "point" became precious and old-fashioned, and has almost completely disappeared by now (people still understand it though, and it can be used for comical effect). So we're left with the form with "pas". And the aforementioned difference in efficiency is such that, as katja mentioned, the "ne", formerly the unique word for negation, has completely dropped off spoken language, which now sounds :

  • Je mange pas (I eat step, meaning I don't eat)
  • Je bois pas (...)
  • J'ecris pas (...)
  • Je marche pas (...)

As a curiosity, the form "je ne bois goutte" (I don't drink a drop) subsisted until today, but with the wrong verb. One french idiom reads "je n'y vois goutte", literally "I don't see a drop of it", probably because the verbs sounded very similar, and maybe also because the resulting idiom was funny.
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Re: Double Negatives

#70  Postby nunnington » Dec 22, 2011 3:43 pm

Those constructions seem rather similar to 'you don't know jack shit' and so on. I think there are a few of these in American English, e.g. diddly squat.

I am struggling to think of some in British English; there will certainly be some in street slang, but things like 'you don't know bollocks' sound similar.
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Re: Double Negatives

#71  Postby palindnilap » Dec 22, 2011 3:55 pm

nunnington wrote:Those constructions seem rather similar to 'you don't know jack shit' and so on. I think there are a few of these in American English, e.g. diddly squat.

I am struggling to think of some in British English; there will certainly be some in street slang, but things like 'you don't know bollocks' sound similar.


"You don't know shit" is a bit similar I think. So now we know that within some hundreds of years, instead of "I don't eat" people will say "I eat shit". :grin:
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Re: Double Negatives

#72  Postby katja z » Dec 22, 2011 3:59 pm

Thanks palindnilap, that was very nice and systematic :cheers:

palindnilap wrote:
For some reason, instead of using a relevant direct complement (maybe because such a complement could be hard or impossible to find for certain verbs), people started to used only "point" or "pas" whatever the verb. "point" or "pas" became compulsory, probably because the "ne" (with a mute e) could easily go unnoticed in the conversation (which can be a big oops), while the p-words were much harder to miss. But this made them effective double negations.


I'd just like to add that in Old (and even Middle) French this was less of a problem because the "mute e" wasn't "mute" yet (it was always pronounced, unlike today).

The change must have been gradual, with both ways of expressing negation coexisting in usage for a long time. Even in the 17th century the single negative seems to have been quite acceptable: "Je ne sais si cela se peut, mais je sais bien que cela est." (Molière)

As a curiosity, the form "je ne bois goutte" (I don't drink a drop) subsisted until today, but with the wrong verb. One french idiom reads "je n'y vois goutte", literally "I don't see a drop of it", probably because the verbs sounded very similar, and maybe also because the resulting idiom was funny.


I think this just shows that "goutte" lost its original meaning and became a marker of negation in the same way as "pas" and "point" at some point, but was outcompeted by them for some reason. "Mie" had a similar fate. I've just found this example from George Sand: "de nouvelles peines auxquelles ils ne s'attendaient mie".

Oh, and another curiosity ... "rien" (nothing) originally meant "thing". "Personne" still means "person" ... but in an exchange like: "As tu vu quelqu'un? - Non, personne" it means "no one".
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Re: Double Negatives

#73  Postby katja z » Dec 22, 2011 4:07 pm

palindnilap wrote:
nunnington wrote:Those constructions seem rather similar to 'you don't know jack shit' and so on. I think there are a few of these in American English, e.g. diddly squat.

I am struggling to think of some in British English; there will certainly be some in street slang, but things like 'you don't know bollocks' sound similar.


"You don't know shit" is a bit similar I think. So now we know that within some hundreds of years, instead of "I don't eat" people will say "I eat shit". :grin:


:rofl: Palindnilap wins the thread!

"You don't know a thing" is actually very similar to how Old French constructed "tu ne sais rien".
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Re: Double Negatives

#74  Postby Onyx8 » Dec 22, 2011 4:45 pm

palindnilap wrote:So only the people who already know about it want me to tell ? Snip



Well, now I know about it I want you to tell. :scratch:

Fascinating stuff, thanks.
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Re: Double Negatives

#75  Postby nunnington » Dec 22, 2011 4:48 pm

Yes, wonderful examples, and analysis. This is like a postgrad seminar. Ah, nostalgia.

Now we should go on to consider words such as 'doubt' which are semantically negative, and which trigger off words such as 'any' or 'ever' which typically go with negation. 'I doubt he's ever been to see her'. I think in French it used to trigger off both 'ne' and the subjunctive, but I assume this has disappeared? 'Je doute qu'il ne vienne'.
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Re: Double Negatives

#76  Postby Evolving » Dec 22, 2011 4:52 pm

It occurs to me that there is a reverse example in Italian: a grammatical negative that isn't negative at all!

"...finché non arriva" = "until he arrives"!
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Re: Double Negatives

#77  Postby nunnington » Dec 22, 2011 4:56 pm

Evolving wrote:It occurs to me that there is a reverse example in Italian: a grammatical negative that isn't negative at all!

"...finché non arriva" = "until he arrives"!


I wonder if that's the negative of uncertainty? This explains the 'ne' in French after 'douter', and there are some grammatical constructions which used to take 'ne', e.g. "Ces idées sont plus difficiles à comprendre que je ne pensais."
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Re: Double Negatives

#78  Postby katja z » Dec 22, 2011 4:59 pm

nunnington wrote:Yes, wonderful examples, and analysis. This is like a postgrad seminar. Ah, nostalgia.

Now we should go on to consider words such as 'doubt' which are semantically negative, and which trigger off words such as 'any' or 'ever' which typically go with negation. 'I doubt he's ever been to see her'. I think in French it used to trigger off both 'ne' and the subjunctive, but I assume this has disappeared?


No, the subjunctive is still there: "Je doute qu'il ait jamais été la voir."

Note, no "ne"; but it does appear as the "ne explétif" in cases like "Je crains qu'elle ne soit malade" (I'm afraid she is ill) - maybe this is what you were thinking of?

ETA Ah yes, I've just seen the edit.

@Evolving, interesting, I didn't know Italian had it too.
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Re: Double Negatives

#79  Postby Regina » Dec 22, 2011 6:26 pm

katja z wrote:
palindnilap wrote:
nunnington wrote:Those constructions seem rather similar to 'you don't know jack shit' and so on. I think there are a few of these in American English, e.g. diddly squat.

I am struggling to think of some in British English; there will certainly be some in street slang, but things like 'you don't know bollocks' sound similar.


"You don't know shit" is a bit similar I think. So now we know that within some hundreds of years, instead of "I don't eat" people will say "I eat shit". :grin:


:rofl: Palindnilap wins the thread!

"You don't know a thing" is actually very similar to how Old French constructed "tu ne sais rien".

How about taking things one step further, ie. the cases where a positive indicates a negative?

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Re: Double Negatives

#80  Postby Corneel » Dec 22, 2011 6:41 pm

katja z wrote:Thanks palindnilap, that was very nice and systematic :cheers:

Yes indeed.

The change must have been gradual, with both ways of expressing negation coexisting in usage for a long time. Even in the 17th century the single negative seems to have been quite acceptable: "Je ne sais si cela se peut, mais je sais bien que cela est." (Molière)

But that construction with "ne sais" (expressing uncertainty) is still used (in writing), as it is with the verb "pouvoir" for instance, "je ne peux t'aider".

Oh, and another curiosity ... "rien" (nothing) originally meant "thing". "Personne" still means "person" ... but in an exchange like: "As tu vu quelqu'un? - Non, personne" it means "no one".
For "personne" confusion is easily avoided since it always takes an article when it means person, and never when it means no one.

Another curiosity is that "only" will often be expressed as a negation in French (ne que). "Je n'ai que cinq euros" "I have only five euros". I wonder how that expression evolved.
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