[PLUG-TALK] Multiple negation and English

John Jason Jordan johnxj at gmx.com
Tue Dec 24 11:09:30 PST 2019

An essay from a linguist.

On Tue, 24 Dec 2019 16:53:59 +0100
Tomas Kuchta <tomas.kuchta.lists at gmail.com> dijo:
>Now, I have conscious, not unconscious (double negative warning to true
>English speakers),

First, let me generalize about negation in languages. The majority of
the world's languages use multiple negation, usually expressed in the
form of negative concord. For example, in Spanish and other present day
Latin languages, once a negative word is used in a sentence the
remainder of the words in the sentence must also be negative. These
languages do not have negative polarity items (NPIs) like 'anything,'
'ever,' etc.; the negative word ('nothing,' 'never') is used for both
English words.

	No tengo nada
	Not I-have nothing
	'I don't have anything.'

If you speak a language with multiple negation you must divorce the
language from rules of algebra. Humans have spoken languages for
hundreds of thousands of years before algebra was invented.

Not all languages with multiple negation employ negative concord. In
many languages multiple negation is used merely for emphasis. Indeed,
such was the case in Middle English (spoken from 1066 to Shakespeare,
~1600). Even Shakespeare used multiple negation occasionally, and
Chaucer's work (late 1300s) is filled with it. Even today multiple
negation is common and perfectly grammatical in several dialects of

In the late 1700s a cleric, Robert Lowth, wrote a book on English
grammar, in which he decried the use of multiple negation, equating it
to the mathematical notion that the sum of two negatives is a positive.
However, Lowth spoke only English and Latin and, as was popular in his
day, he believed that Latin was the perfect language and English should
follow the same rules. Latin did not employ multiple negation,
therefore English should not either. Although Lowth was not the first
self-appointed grammarian to express this view of multiple negation,
his book enjoyed popularity in the day, and the idea that multiple
negation was incorrect became one of the mantras of prescriptivists,
perpetuated to the present day. Indeed, when I was a child in grade
school many of the children spoke using multiple negation, which the
teachers did their best to extirpate. Yet today I hear people with
advanced degrees use multiple negation in English for emphasis, which I
also do. As a linguist I view this usage as nothing more than a relic
from Middle English, and perfectly grammatical.

A fundamental principle of linguistics is that all languages and their
varieties are equally effective at expressing the needs of their
speakers. Therefore, if you use multiple negation in English it is
perfectly grammatical.

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