I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

I ended my last post with some comments on correctness. I get asked questions about correctness all the time, but it’s not a topic that interests me very much. There’s a lot of “correct” writing which is really dull, and a lot of writing that is not “correct” that’s really interesting. I would rather be interesting than correct any day.

Mostly “correctness” in language is social and political. Most (or all) languages have dialects, and sometimes one of those dialects gets a certain prestige, usually because it’s the dialect of the center of political power. That dialect is then thought of as the “standard”. But in other circumstances a different area might have become the center of power, and a different dialect might have become the standard.

There are many dialects of French, for example, but the French of Paris became the prestigious dialect. I understand that politicians from other parts of France speak Parisian French when they are in Paris, but when they go home to their local districts, they speak the local dialect. Even in Canada, Parisian French is the prestigious dialect, and for the most part that’s the dialect taught in schools throughout the country, even though the Canadian French dialect is quite different.

So the standard of correctness is mostly based on political power. Often you will hear people defend the standard on other grounds. The double negative, for instance, is common in many “non-standard” dialects in English, but it is condemned by English teachers because it is “illogical”—two negatives, they argue, make a positive, so if you say “I don’t want no broccoli” you are really saying that you want broccoli. I am sure that in practice no one who says “I don’t want no broccoli” is served broccoli. Everyone understands what the speaker means.

Double negatives are actually quite common and “correct” in many languages. In ancient Greek, for example, they are quite frequent. On the third page of Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” (18.d) there’s a double negative, which in a roughly literal translation would read: “These [accusers] are the hardest to deal with, for it is not possible to summon before the court or to cross examine none of them”, where the “not” and the “none” make a double negative. In standard English, he means it is not possible to summon or cross examine any of them. So there’s Plato using a double negative. Any construction Plato uses I would hesitate to condemn. As my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Crawford, used to say, “language isn’t logical, it’s systematic”.

You could also argue that French regularly uses a double negative, though we don’t usually think of it that way. In standard French, the negative has two parts, “ne…pas”, “ne…jamais”, “ne…point”, and so on. But I gather from those who speak informal French (I don’t) that you don’t actually need both. And even in formal French, “pas” or “jamais” can be negative without the “ne”. If someone asks if you eat broccoli, you can just say “Jamais!!!”

So the objection to the double negative in English has nothing to do with logic. It’s entirely a question of what’s socially approved, and what’s socially approved depends on who is doing the approving. There are situations in which the double negative is socially appropriate, and situations in which it isn’t.

My father’s mother was Scottish, though she grew up partly in India. All her life she retained some Britishisms in her speech. I’ve forgotten most of them, but I remember she used to say “odds and sods” rather than “odds and ends”, and “many a mickle makes a muckle”, which I think means that a lot of little things make a big thing. She also used the word “ain’t”, which was condemned by my schoolteachers, of course, but which was evidently regularly used by the British upper classes when my grandmother was young.

When she first came to North America, back in 1914, she was travelling to the west coast, and on her way she stopped off in a town in the Midwest. She got off the train and asked the porter where she could find a hotel, because, as she said, she was knocked up. The porter was shocked; in the US, “knocked up” is a somewhat rude way of saying “pregnant”, but in my grandmother’s English dialect, she was just saying she was tired.

A couple of years ago I found this usage in a novel by George Eliot, Adam Bede. Hetty, a young farm girl, has been seduced by the local squire, Arthur Donnithorne, who then leaves for his service in the military. When she realizes that she is pregnant, she runs away from home to look for him. She has no success, but she spends her money and becomes exhausted and full of despair. She reaches a town called Stony Stratford with only a shilling left; she gives the coachman a tip, but she asks for sixpence back out of the shilling.

The landlord of the Green Man had stood near enough to witness the scene, and he was a man whose abundant feeding served to keep his good-nature, as well as his person, in high condition. And that lovely tearful face of Hetty’s would have found out the sensitive fibre in most men.

   “Come, my young woman, come in,’ he said, ‘and have a drop o’ something; you’re pretty well knocked up: I can see that.”

He means that Hetty looks tired. She is in fact pregnant, but he doesn’t know that and certainly that isn’t what he means. But compare this to a passage from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie, the heroine, has been married off to an older man, but she is unhappy because she finds that she doesn’t love her husband. She goes visit her grandmother, Nanny, who raised her, to talk things over:

She just fell on a chair with her hips and sat there. Between the biscuits and her beaming pride Nanny didn’t notice for a minute. But after a while she found the conversation getting lonesome so she looked up at Janie.

“Whut’s de matter, sugar? You ain’t none too spry this mornin’.”

“Oh, nothin’ much, Ah reckon. Ah come to get a lil information from you.”

   The old woman looked amazed, then gave a big clatter of laughter. “Don’t tell me you done got knocked up already, less see—dis Saturday it’s two month and two weeks.”

“No’m, Ah don’t think so anyhow.” Janie blushed a little.

In the dialect of Adam Bede, ‘knocked up’ means tired, but in the dialect of Their Eyes Were Watching God, ‘knocked up’ means pregnant. Reading the wrong dialect in these passages could produce a momentary confusion, or worse. My next post will continue with more discussion of English dialects.

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