Don’t never use no double negatives

Multiple negation? I ain’t never heard nothing about that!

“Two negatives make a positive,” your friend may primly reply to such a statement. Even if you’re not exactly fond of math, you surely remember enough to acknowledge the wisdom and veracity of such sound logic.

But the funny thing about languages? They have a logic all their own, and it doesn’t always play by the same rules as our conscious minds.

Take, for example, this phenomenon of the double negative. Like the other formal, prescriptive rules we’ve been exploring with this series, the distaste for double negatives is relatively new to English.

Back in Old and Middle English (roughly AD 1000-1450), English wasn’t particularly fussed about multiple elements of negation in a sentence. If anything, they were used for emphasis, to drive home the negation. This trick of negatives supporting each other (rather than canceling each other out) is called negative concord. Far from being frowned upon, some languages crave it. Spanish, for example, regularly crams several negation words into a single sentence without a second thought:

¡No toques nada!
‘Don’t touch anything!’

This isn’t merely the preferred method of negation. In languages like Spanish and French, negative concord isn’t for emphasis; it’s mandatory. That’s just how they express negation.

The idea that two negatives grammatically make a positive in English was first recorded in the 1700s along with most of the other prescriptive rules. Unlike the other rules, there is some evidence to suggest that negative concord was naturally beginning to disappear in mainstream varieties of English even before the early grammarians codified the rule. This really isn’t too surprising. Languages like to change, and among the other moving parts they scramble around, they commonly go through phases of double negation (we linguists know this as Jespersen’s Cycle).

Math has naught to do with language, but it’s certainly true that in our Modern English, double negatives have the potential to leave a lot of ambiguity. Do they cancel? Do they intensify each other? It’s all about that context. This is one rule that might be here to stay1 (at least in formal English).

Notes
1 At least for now!

Sherlock Nouns and the Case of Morphological Declension

Ah, nouns. Classically defined as “people, places, and things,”1 these little (and sometimes not so little) words can carry a lot of meaning, encompassing everything from cats to triskaidekaphobia2. Pair them with verbs (those things you do), and you’ve really got something.

In English, there’s a comforting solidity to nouns. Not like verbs, that throw on endings and even, le gasp, change vowels like they’re trying on hats. Nouns, now—nouns are dependable.

Or so you thought. When you change the form of a verb to reflect who’s doing what and when, that’s called conjugation. Here’s the bombshell: nouns can do that, too. It’s called declension.

In some languages, the form of the noun changes to indicate its role in a sentence. For example, a noun may have one form when it’s the subject of a sentence but have a different form when it’s the object. (As a refresher: in ‘Rebekah wants haggis’, ‘Rebekah’ is the subject, and ‘haggis’ is the object.) These noun forms are called cases. Adjectives, pronouns, participles, numerals, and demonstratives (this or that) can also decline. Declension occurs in languages like, oh, English. Or Spanish. (Just a little bit.)

In English and Spanish, the presence of cases is most evident in their pronouns:

English Spanish
subject he él
direct object him lo
indirect object him le
possessive his/hisn su/suyo
reflexive himself se

(Hisn is a dialectal form like mine for the third person.)

For regular nouns, English only distinguishes between singular and plural and between possessive and non-possessive. Spanish distinguishes between singular and plural and declines for grammatical gender (e.g. the adjective blanco will become feminine blanca when describing la tortuga blanca ‘the white turtle’). The diversity of their pronoun forms3 is a remnant of their parent languages, Old English and Latin respectively. These older languages had full, healthy case systems that affected all their nouns. They in turn inherited their noun cases from a common ancestor, namely Indo-European (IE).

The Indo-European Noun Cases

Based on the structure of its surviving daughters, linguists have determined that Proto Indo-European had eight noun cases:

case role example in an English sentence
nominative subject amīcus ‘boy’/puella ‘girl’ (Lat) The boy plays.
accusative direct object amīcum/puellam He loves the girl.
dative indirect object amīcō/puellae He gives the girl a flower.
ablative movement away from amīcō/puellā She runs from the boy.
genitive possessive amīcī/puellae The boy’s tears
vocative addressee amīce/puella Boy, where art thou?
locative physical or temporal location domī ‘at home (Lat) She stays at home.
instrumental by means of which something is done þȳ stāne ‘with a stone’ (OE) He raps on her window with a stone.

 

This is a rather simplified representation of the situation. The actual distinctions and usages of the cases vary from language to language, particularly because very few IE languages utilize all eight cases (like Sanskrit does). It’s the nature of languages to change, and cases have a propensity to merge, a process called syncretism4. It’s like when you’re working on a group project, and half the group doesn’t show up, leaving the kids who want a good grade to pull double duty and fulfill the delinquents’ obligations as well as their own. For example, in Old English, the dative case fills some of the same uses as the ablative case in Latin because Old English doesn’t have an ablative.

The case of noun cases shook out a little differently across the Indo-European language family. As previously mentioned, Sanskrit has eight cases. Latin has seven. Old English has five. Icelandic and German have four (although German doesn’t show it on nouns so much as on articles and adjectives). And languages like English and Spanish don’t so much have cases anymore as much as they have pictures of their old case-infused relatives hanging on their walls.

A college classmate of mine once stated rather authoritatively that the reason the modern Romance languages have generally done away with cases is because it’s too hard to decline all those Latin nouns in your head. To be fair, Latin has five different groups of nouns (called declensions), all with their own endings for Latin’s seven cases. And it is true that many modern IE languages employ far fewer cases than their ancestors, if any at all. But the idea that cases are too hard for our brains to manage in everyday speech? Hogwash. Russian, another IE language that is very much alive and kicking, has six cases. Our friend Finnish (of Uralic descent) has fifteen. (You should also take from the example of Finnish that noun cases are not unique to the Indo-European languages.)

We’ve discussed before (repeatedly) that one language isn’t really harder than any other; they’re just different. The human brain is well equipped to utilize any of them it can get its neurons on. If our homo sapien super computers couldn’t handle a given linguistic structure, it wouldn’t develop. Easy as pie.

To Word Order or Not to Word Order?

Now, a robust system of noun cases (and verb conjugation) in a language can affect more than just the morphology. Because so much important information is embedded in the words themselves, word order is less important and more flexible than in languages like Modern English.

In Old English, ‘Se hlāford lufaþ þā frōwe’ and ‘Þā frōwe lufaþ se hlāford’ both mean ‘The lord loves the lady.’ In Modern English, ‘The lord loves the lady’ and ‘The lady loves the lord’ have very different meanings (although, for the sake of romance, one hopes that both statements are equally true). To say ‘The lady loves the lord’ in Old English, you would decline the nouns differently and say ‘Sēo frōwe lufaþ þone hlāford.’ (Maybe this wasn’t the best example as there aren’t noticeably distinct ending on the verbs, but you can see the difference in case in the demonstratives.) This is not to say that Old English doesn’t have rules about word order, but it’s less crucial than in today’s English.

Languages that rely on declension and conjugation (both types of inflection) to convey meaning are called synthetic languages. Languages that rely more on word order are called analytic. These distinctions are not binary but rather are a matter of degree.

So, there you have it. (It being a brief rundown on noun cases.) As parts of speech go, nouns are pretty straightforward. But like a duck paddling on water, nature’s got a lot of beautiful stuff going on underneath the surface.

Notes

1 Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock.
2 A fear of the number 13.
3 Pronouns generally resist change (the stubborn things), hence the moderate survival of cases where they were generally lost throughout the rest of the language.
4 This phenomenon is propelled by things like sound change. If the endings for two cases start to sound identical, it becomes hard to distinguish them as separate forms.

Introduction to the blog and some words on Descriptivism

Hello everyone! Welcome to our shiny new blog! My name is Riccardo, I’m 25 years old, from Bologna, Italy (homeland of good food and jumping moustached plumbers) and I’m here to talk about linguistics. Well, we all are, really. That’s why we’re the Historical Linguist Channel™!

So, “what is a linguist?” I hear you ask through my finely-honed sense for lingering doubts. Well, a linguist is someone who studies language, duh. What’s that? You want more detail? I can understand that. After all, few academic fields are as misunderstood by the general public as the field of linguistics. People might think that the Earth is flat, or that aspirin turns frogs into handsome, muscular princes (or was it kisses?), but at least they know what an astronomer or a doctor is and what they do. No such luck for linguists, I’m afraid. Misconceptions about what we do and absurdly wrong notions about what we study are rife even within the academic community itself. We’re here to dispel those misconceptions.

In the series of articles that follows, each of us will debunk one myth or misconception which he or she (mostly she) finds particularly pernicious and wants out of the way immediately before we even start regularly updating the blog’s content. In this introductory article, I will explain the most fundamental source of myths and misconceptions about linguistics there is: the difference between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.

But first, let me begin with an unfortunately not-so-exaggerated portrayal of the popular perception of linguists: the Movie Linguist.

Scene: an unexplored Mayan ruin, deep in the jungles of Central America. Three explorers cautiously walk in a dark hallway, torches blazing over their heads. Philip, the dashing young adventurer, leads forward, cutting the vines that grow in the ancient corridors with his machete. He is followed by Beatrice, a beautiful young woman he naturally will end up kissing towards the end of the movie. Trailing behind them is a bespectacled, nervous man, awkwardly trying to hold onto a ream of papers and charts. He is Nigel, the linguist. Suddenly, they break into an enormous room. The group leader raises his torch with a sweeping motion. The music swells: the walls of the chamber are covered with inscriptions.

Philip: My God… look at this.

Beatrice: What is it?

Philip: Look at the inscriptions on the walls.

Beatrice: [gasps] Could it really be…?

Philip: Egyptian hieroglyphs… in a Mayan pyramid!!

Beatrice: But it’s impossible! How could they have arrived here?

Philip: I don’t know. Nigel! You’ve got to see this.

Nigel enters the chamber, and immediately drops his papers in astonishment.

Nigel: I- it’s incredible! The theories of professor McSweeney on cultural cross-pollination were true!

Beatrice: Can you read it?

Nigel: Well, given the nature of the expedition, I was presumably hired for my expertise in Meso-American languages. Fortunately, I am a Linguist™, and that means I can read every language ever spoken by every human being that ever lived.

Nigel kneels next to the closest inscription. He thoughtfully adjusts his glasses.

Nigel: Hmmm… I recognise this. It’s an obscure dialect of Middle Egyptian spoken in a village exactly 7.6 km due East of Thebes in the year 1575 BC. I can tell just by superficially looking at it.

Philip: What does it say?

Nigel: Unfortunately, this dialect is so obscure that it wasn’t covered in the 72 years of back-breaking grad school every linguist must undergo to learn every language ever spoken. I will need time to decipher it.

Beatrice: How much time? This place gives me the creeps.

Nigel: Just a few hours, and I will do it with no help from any dictionary, reference grammar or corpus of similar dialects to which I could compare it. After I decipher it, I will, of course, be able to read, write, and speak it natively with no doubt or hesitation whatsoever.

A skittering sound echoes in one of the hallways.

Philip: Be quick about it. I have a feeling we’re not alone…

In the end, it turns out the inscriptions on the wall warn intruders that an ancient Egyptian god slumbers in the tomb and that he will not be appeased by anything except fat-free, low-calorie double bacon cheeseburgers which taste as delicious as their horribly unhealthy counterparts, which is, of course, a dream far beyond the reach of our puny human science. A thrilling battle with the minions of this god ensues, until the explorers come face-to-face with the burger-hungry divinity himself. They manage to escape his clutches thanks to Nigel, who now speaks the Middle Egyptian dialect so well that he manages to embarrass the god by pointing out that he ended a sentence with a preposition.

Somewhere along the way, Philip and Beatrice kiss.

Our objective here at the Historical Linguist Channel is to bring your image of linguists and linguistics as far as possible from the one I just painted above. Said image is unfortunately very prevalent in the public’s consciousness, a state of affairs which makes linguistics possibly one of the most misunderstood academic disciplines out there.

So, without further ado, I will get into the meat of my own post: the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics.

What is descriptivism?

Most people know at least some basic notions about many sciences: most of us know that matter in the universe is made of atoms, that atoms bond together to form molecules, and so on. Most people know about gravity, planets and stars.

Yet, remarkably few people, even amongst so-called “language enthusiasts”, know the most basic fact about linguistics: that it is a descriptive, and not a prescriptive, discipline.

What does it mean to be a descriptive discipline? As the name suggests, a descriptive discipline concerns itself with observing and describing a phenomenon, making no judgements about it. For a descriptive science, there are no superior or inferior facts. Facts are just facts. A planet that goes around its star once every 365 days is not any better or worse than one which takes, say, 220. As an academic science, linguistics merely concerns itself with studying language in all its forms and variety, without ascribing correctness or value on some forms over others. To a linguist, “I ain’t done nuffin’ copper!” is as good an English sentence as “The crime of which you regretfully accuse me has not taken place by my hand, and I resent the implication, good sir!”

Now, you might be thinking: Riccardo, doesn’t every scientific discipline work that way? To which I answer: yes, yes they do. Linguistics, however, is slightly different from pretty much all other scientific disciplines (with the possible exception of sociology and perhaps a few others) in that, for most of its early history, it was a prescriptive discipline.

A prescriptive discipline is basically just the opposite of what I just described. Prescriptive disciplines judge some forms of what they study to be better or “correct”, and others to be “wrong” or inferior to others. Sound familiar? That’s probably because it’s how most people approach the study of language. Since the dawn of civilisation, language has been seen as something to be tightly controlled, of which one and only one form was the “right” and “correct” one, all others being corruptions that needed to be stamped out. Another very prevalent prescriptive idea is that language is decaying, that young people are befouling the language of their parents, transforming it into a lazy mockery of its former glory, but that’s a story for another post.

Prescriptive linguistics is concerned with formulating and imposing a series of rules that determine which form of a language is correct and which forms are not (in Humean terms, descriptivism is concerned with “is”, prescriptivism is concerned with “ought”. And you thought this wasn’t going to be an exquisitely intellectual blog).

In general, if you ask most people on the street to cite a “rule of grammar” to you, they will come up with a prescriptive rule. We’ve all heard many: “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”, “it’s you and I, not you and me”, “a double negative makes a positive”, the list goes on.

If you ask a linguist, on the other hand, you’ll get descriptive rules, such as “English generally places its modifiers before the head of the phrase” or “English inflects its verbs for both tense and aspect”.

A very useful way to think about the difference between a descriptive and a prescriptive rule is comparing it to the difference between physical laws and traffic laws. A physical law is a fact. It can’t be broken: it simply is. I can no more contravene the law of gravity than I can purposefully will my own heart to beat in rhythm to Beethoven. But I can contravene traffic laws: I am absolutely physically capable of driving against the flow of traffic, of running a red light or not switching on my headlights during poor visibility conditions.

In general, if a rule says that I shouldn’t do something, that means that I am capable of doing it. Even more damningly, if someone felt the need to specify that something should not be done, it means that someone has been doing it. So, completing the analogy, the paradoxical reason you hear your teacher say that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition in English is that you CAN end a sentence with a preposition in English. In fact, it is far more common than the so-called “correct” way.

What you will never hear is an English teacher specifically instructing you not to decline an English noun in the locative case. Why? Because English has no locative case. It lost it in its rebellious youth, when it went by the name of Proto-Germanic and it had just split from Indo-European because that’s what all the cool kids were doing. Finnish, which is not an Indo-European language, is a proper hoarder: it has no less than six locative cases.

Academic linguistics is exclusively concerned with the “physical laws” of language, the fundamental rules that determine how each language differs from all others. It takes no interest in offering value-judgements. Which is why a linguist is the last person you should ask about whether something you said is “good grammar” or not, incidentally.

So, are descriptivism and prescriptivism radically and fundamentally opposed?

Well, yes and no.

A limited form of prescriptivism has its uses: since languages are not uniform and vary wildly even over relatively short geographical distances, it is very important for a country to have a standardised form of language taught in school, with regulated forms so that it doesn’t veer too much in any particular direction. This makes communication easy between inhabitants of the country, and allows bureaucratic, governmental and scientific communication to happen with the greatest amount of efficiency.

The problem with prescriptivism is that it is very easily misused. Only a frighteningly short step is needed to go from establishing a standard form of language to ease communication between people in the same nation to defining all varieties of the language which do not correspond to this standard form as debased trash worthy only of stamping out, and any speakers of those varieties as uneducated churls, or worse, traitors and villains. For centuries, some languages (such as Latin) have been touted as “logical”, “superior”, the pinnacle of human thought, while other languages (mainly the languages of indigenous peoples in places conquered by Western colonialists, surprise surprise) were reviled as “primitive”, incapable of complex expression on the level of European languages.

Linguistic discrimination is a woefully widespread and tragically unreported phenomenon which is rife even in what would otherwise be socially progressive countries. In my native Italy, more than 20 local languages are spoken over the whole territory, some as different from Italian as French is. Yet, if you ask most people, even cultured ones, the only language spoken in Italy is Italian (the standardised form based on the language of Florence). All the other local languages are reduced to the status of “dialects”, and often reviled as markers of lack of education or provinciality, and described as less “rich” than Italian, or even as ugly and vulgar. The Italian state doesn’t even recognise them as separate languages.

Even comparatively minor variation is a target for surprisingly virulent hate: one need only think about the droves of people foaming at the mouth just thinking about people speaking English with the intonation pattern known as “uptalk”, characteristic of some urban areas in the USA and Australia.

Be descriptive!

So, what’s the takeaway from this disjointed ramble of mine?

Simple: linguistics is the scientific study of language, and sees all forms of language as equally fascinating and worthy of study and preservation.

In our posts and our podcasts you will never hear us ranting about “bad grammar”, or describe certain languages as superior or inferior to others. Our mission is transmitting to you the wonder and joy that is the immense variety inherent in human language.

Along the trip, you’ll discover languages in which double negatives are not only accepted, but encouraged; in which sentences MUST end with a preposition, when the need arises; languages with a baffling number of cases, baroque verb systems, and grammatical categories you haven’t even heard of.

We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do.

Tune in next Thursday for the next introductory post on the thorny question of language evolution, where Sabina will set the record straight: are youths these days ruining language?

Bibliography

Most introductory linguistics textbooks begin with a section on descriptivism, but if you want something free and online, the introductory section for The Syntax of Natural Language by Beatrice Santorini and Anthony Kroch is thorough and full of examples. You can find it here: http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/