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Ain’t Not Nothing: Double Negatives Posted by on May 16, 2016 in Archived Posts

ITCHY FEET: Yes Yes No

The comic above is essentially a recreation of a true story, one which occurred in the 1950s at Colombia University. Renowned philosopher J.L. Austin was giving a lecture, and explained exactly what my coffee bean-shaped friend above explains: that in many languages, double negatives create positives, and in some, double negatives create negatives; but in no language can a double positive make a negative. To this, Sidney Morgenbesser, a Jewish-American philosopher and professor known for his wit, waved his hand dismissively and replied either “yeah, right” or “yeah, yeah,” at which point the auditorium burst into delighted applause, then cheers, and then the audience rioted, destroying the facilities, mortally wounding Austin and burning the auditorium to the ground in a fit of linguistic anarchy.

Right, okay, that last part may or may not have actually happened. But Morgenbesser’s comment has gone on to be famous, among other snappy remarks he’s made over the years (he died in 2004).

A few keen-eyed commenters on the comic have noted that, in fact, il n’y a rien (French for “there is nothing”) is not, strictly speaking, a double negative. I translated it directly to “there isn’t nothing”, but that’s incorrect: rien in French does mean “nothing,” but a lot is lost in the translation. The word rien derives from the Latin word res, which means “thing.” So, completely literally, il n’y a rien translates to “there is no-thing.” The same applies to il n’y a personne (“there is no one,” not “there is not no one”) and je n’ai jamais vu ça (“I’ve never seen that,” not “I have not never seen that”).

However, there is another case in French in which a double negative creates a positive, pointed out by another commenter: je ne vais nulle part, or “I don’t go nowhere”. Now, in English, it isn’t uncommon in the American countryside to hear “I never go nowhere'” or “I ain’t never gone nowhere,” both grammatically as incorrect as you can get, but popular nonetheless. Whether je ne vais nulle part is also a phrase that’s technically incorrect but often used, I’m not sure (let me know in the comments!). Another is nul ne peut t’égaler, or “no one can’t equal you,” but used to mean “no one is as good as you.”

What about your languages? Commenters said Finnish doesn’t have double negatives, but that Spanish does (no hay nada, or “there isn’t nothing,” for example). Any other not un-curiosities that ain’t not worth a mention?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Karen K:

    In russian there is a saying:
    никто никогда негде ничего не знает
    which means no one, nowhere, ever knows anything. That’s 5 negatives in one sentence!

    • Eugene:

      @Karen K A small correction: нигде.

      Негде has first syllable stressed and means “no place”. “Негде жить” “no place to live”

  2. Bahia:

    Je ne vais nulle part is correct and very much in use. Only in the English language there is no double negative but as you know the D/Neg is quite common in Latin-based languages. Londoners (Eastenders) will speak using the double negative, such as: I ain’t doing nothing or I don’t want nothing (k..). They usually pronounce nothing with a ‘k’!


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