Thursday, July 9, 2015

Double Negatives and the Rubes, Noobs and Boobs Who Use Them

In English, double negatives are a chief identifying mark of the bumpkin. Add ain’t, a drawl and some gerunds with letter Gs dropped off and you’ve got a vicious American stereotype, the uneducated rural simpleton. Whether portrayed to be lovable like Jethro Bodine or disquieting like Honey Boo Boo,  the iconic American rube is a stalwart of our folklore, and in most cases, they ain't heard nothin', they ain't seen nothin', and they don't know nothin'.

Another notable demographic that uses double negatives are non-native speakers. The reason for that is because most languages employ a grammatical system whereby the second negative intensifies or affirms the first. This is called negative concord. The sentence, “I never did nothing,” could come out of either our rural stereotype’s mouth or a recent immigrant’s. The French, “Je ne faisais rien,” for instance, translates literally as “I didn’t do nothing.”

As with all things in language, there are two sides to the double negative coin, and its second is its entirely grammatical use as a weakened positive. It is the stingy compliment, the eked out affirmation, the grudging endorsement. The comedian wasn’t unfunny, his wife was not unattractive, and on these two points each might not disagree.