By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University
When we talk, for which we have a genetic tendency, somehow we go around doing it wrong. Generally speaking, if someone makes a mistake due to which clarity of language is actually hampered then the language changes and corrects itself. We are taught that double negatives are wrong, but in actual conversations, are they not used often? Does that impede communication?
English Rules and Double Negatives
In the 1700s, Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray wrote books on English grammar rules. And, for years, all of us followed them, assuming they were correct. However, the two men worked under a few assumptions. They thought that language is supposed to have logic. It should be similar to math. Yet, what we know now is that there are errors in all languages that do not make any real logical sense. Language is of such nature. But do these small errors hamper the communication and its intended meaning? No, not at all. That’s how languages are.
One illusion that Lowth and Murray had was about the use of double negatives. An example can be: “She ain’t seen nobody.” We have been told that it has two negatives and that is not right. The first hint that something is right is coming from the fact that double negatives are common throughout the world. So, if there is someone who speaks Spanish, and who speaks it in a way that is thought to be proper by everyone, would say, Nunca he visto nada. Its meaning is, “I have never seen anything.” Nunca is a negative word, he visto, and nada are also negative words. Never and nothing. Yet this sentence does not look very rappy or hip-hoppy. Even though it has double negative, it is considered to be a proper sentence in Spanish.
This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Use Of Double Negatives
The use of double negatives in English language was quite commonplace. It was considered OK to say, “I can’t sing anything” in old English, which would roughly translate to: Ic ne can noht singan. The nay was a negative word and the naught was also a negative word. We know that naught has now become not. So if someone said Ic ne can noht singan, it meant, “I no can nothing sing.” One can see double negatives here.
English had, and still has, many dialects. In the region that English happened to be developing into a standard dialect, there was an alternate construction, and that’s the one that we’re familiar with. So, saying, “I have not seen anything,” was another way of being negative in English. It was a common usage at that time. Double negatives could still be used, particularly when one wants to put emphasis on something, and it’s not considered ungrammatical or incorrect. For example, in part II of Henry IV, Shakespeare makes Falstaff say, “There’s never none of these demure boys come to any proof.” Notice the use of never and none. And this was written by none other than William Shakespeare. Falstaff is not going against the rules of grammar. In its own way, it was a formal language.
Learn more about how languages also mix their grammars.
Two Negatives Make a Positive
According to Lowth and Murray, two negatives made a positive. And this is true in math, but this decision of theirs made double negatives look sloppy. And it has stayed that way since then. One interesting thing to note is that all the non-standard English dialects use double negatives. So, the moment one deviates somewhat from standard English, one can see people all around evidently making mistakes. This happens in England. We can see beautiful people milking their cows and using accents. This type of double negative is used by them. Another example: A chimney sweeper in Victorian London. He’s Cockney, cute accent, but uses double negatives.
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Double Negatives in Communication
Black American English uses double negatives. Ralph Cramden, Brooklyn English. Again double negatives. The moment one looks away from textbook English, one can see a lot of people using double negatives. Could so many people be wrong? Is everyone really such a braggart? Are all these people being asked to comply with a rule that is not only not natural but is also not actually valid? No doubt we all have an Aunt Lucy or we know someone like her. She wears a hat with a flower in it and has a Pekinese dog with whom she walks. Of course, she is somebody from the 1930s, but we all can imagine a person like that. When she talks to you she will say something like this, “Well! What do you mean you ‘ain’t seen nothin’?” Here it means that it is nothing that you have not seen and that implies you have seen something. Is that not true? Think over it. You may say, “Well…. technically it is right.”
But that is a more of a logical argument. It is not thought of by us as the language goes by. Nor do those who speak Spanish or other languages where double negatives are used. So the very idea “I ain’t got nothing” is not right. We know that the sense that we have of that is a mistake. Still, we are being taught that in school year after year.
There are many such rules that we are told are very important, and these things are told to us with great authority and people can actually get irritated or uncomfortable about the nature of these rules when, in reality, most of these rules do not make any sense. It is not to say that we should not bother about the elegance of language and the effectiveness of communication. But the question that arises then is that that do rules like those about double negatives really hamper communication? Or, should we be just concerned with issues of clarity and grace. After all, the idea is to communicate, and do it well.
Learn more about dialects-the fallacy of blackboard grammar
Common Questions About Double Negatives
When two negative words are used in the same sentence they are called double negatives.
Some of the negative words are no, none, don’t, and won’t. An example of a double negative can be: She ain’t seen nobody.
The use of double negatives in Old English was quite commonplace. It is still very common in other languages of the world.