How English lost the double negative (and French gained it)

double negativesDouble negatives are considered bad grammar in English. Try telling an English teacher that you “haven’t got no pencils” or that you “didn’t see no-one” and he or she will pounce and say “Aha…. A double negative cancels out to become a positive, so you do have some pencils and you did see somebody.”

It hasn’t always been like this though. There was a time in English when using a double negative was an acceptable way of emphasising something. Shakespeare is littered with double, and even triple, negatives!

In As You Like It, Celia says: You know my father hath no child but I, nor none is like to have…

In Richard III, Stanley says: “I never was nor never will be”

And in Twelfth Night, Viola says: I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth.
And that no woman has, nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.”

Other languages still have a double negative. For example in Spanish to say I see nothing you would say “No veo nada.”

Well, if it was good enough for Shakespeare, and it’s still good enough for other European languages, what went wrong in English? To paraphrase Baldric in Blackadder goes forth, “ There must have been a moment when double negatives being acceptable went away, and double negatives not being acceptable came along. So, how did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?”

Well, what happened is that the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason came along. Mathematics became more socially important and scholars tried to impose the same mathematical rules to language. In the mid 1700s Robert Lowth wrote a book about English grammar, proclaiming that two negatives must make a positive, and so it has been ever since.

Interestingly – French made the opposite change. As anyone who has tried to learn French will probably remember, to say something in the negative you have to make a ne pas sandwich. I don’t want is “je ne veux pas, I don’t know is “je ne sais pas” and so on. If you’ve ever wondered why you had to use two bits, and why the second word was the same as the word for a step, well… there is a reason!

It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time I don’t want was “je ne veux, I don’t know was “je ne sais” and so on. But then there came a great fashion for exaggeration for emphasis: I couldn’t eat another mouthful….I couldn’t drink another drop……I couldn’t walk another step. Over time this manner of speaking became the norm, but then gradually most of the expressions disappeared, just leaving “pas” which tacked itself onto all of the negatives and has stayed there ever since.

And that’s the story of how English lost the double negative, and French gained it.

Alexander Graham Bell – the man behind the inventor

Of course I’ve heard of Alexander Graham Bell. I know that he is credited with inventing the telephone. I know that there is some controversy surrounding this claim and that some people believe that he stole the idea from another inventor called Elisha Gray. I know that despite this, he was the first to patent the telephone and his patent held up in a court case. I know that the first words he is supposed to have spoken over the telephone were, “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

What I didn’t know until recently, was that he was known as more than an inventor. On a trip to the Science Museum in London I was curious to see that the display about Alexander Graham Bell was BSL interpreted – the only exhibit in the whole museum that was as far as I had seen. Intrigued, I approached the display and read that Alexander Graham Bell had supposedly said that of all the things he had done, the achievement he was most proud of was his work with deaf people.

As I have an interest in education for deaf people, using my BSL to work as a supply teacher in a school for deaf children, my curiosity was sparked and I decided to find out more about him.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to Eliza and Alexander Bell, and as his father and grandfather were both elocution teachers, it was probably inevitable that he would become involved in communication.

His interest in deafness began at the age of 12 when his mother started to go deaf. He used to sit by her and spell the conversations into her hand so that she didn’t miss out on what was happening around her. He also realised that if he spoke quite closely to her forehead she could hear him. He worked out that she was actually feeling the vibrations of his voice, and this became useful in his later research.

In 1870 he moved to Canada with his family, and the following year they moved again to the USA, where Bell began teaching deaf people to speak, using a system called “visible speech” which his father had invented.

In 1872 he founded the school in Boston where he taught deaf children and also trained Teachers of the Deaf. His most famous pupil was Helen Keller. His interest in speech led to an interest in transmitting speech, and after much experimentation and a neck-and-neck race with Elisha Gray, he was granted a patent for the telephone in 1876.

In 1880 he was awarded the Volta Prize for his invention and he used the money to continue researching communication and ways to teach the deaf. By this time he had also married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, one of his former pupils, who was profoundly deaf.

With all this work with and for deaf people, at first it seems strange that he isn’t better known for this, and regarded as an important historical figure in the Deaf community. However, attitudes were less enlightened back then. Deafness was seen as something that needed to be cured, and if possible, eradicated. Bell taught deaf people to speak clearly so that they could be understood by hearing people and integrated into the hearing world and he believed that sign language was wrong. Although I have not heard anything that suggests he did as some other teachers did, and tie pupils’ hands behind their backs to prevent them from signing, there is little doubt that he tried to suppress sign language. He had also noticed that there seemed to be a link between deaf parents and deaf children, and even went so far as to suggest that deaf people should not be allowed to marry or to have children, so that deafness could be erased from the population! It is for these reasons that he is understandably not respected by the Deaf community.

It can only be hoped that were he alive today he would have very different views. As it is, perhaps it is for the best that he is only remembered as the inventor of the telephone.

The Golden Apple

King Peleus and the goddess Thetis were getting married, and everybody was invited. Everybody that is except Eris, the goddess of discord. In true storybook-villain fashion, she had a hissy fit and got her revenge by throwing a golden apple amongst the guests announcing that it was a gift for the most beautiful amongst them.

Of course all the goddesses started squabbling about who should have it, and the wedding celebrations were quickly forgotten. The “competition” was soon whittled down to three finalists: Hera (wife of Zeus and queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom), and Aphrodite (goddess of love).

Unable to decide amongst themselves they agreed to ask Paris, a Trojan prince, to be the judge. Desperate to win, each of the three goddesses offer gifts to Paris to tempt him to choose her. Hera said she would make him the king of the whole of Europe; Athena offered to make in the most skilful warrior the world had ever seen; and Aphrodite promised him the hand of her sister Helen – the most beautiful woman in the world – in marriage.

Not stopping to consider that by naming one goddess the winner he would be making enemies for life of the other two, Paris immediately proclaimed Aphrodite the most beautiful goddess, and he claimed Helen as his own prize.

Unfortunately Helen was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta, who vowed to get his wife back, and thus the Trojan War was begun.

Batty about Bats

Bats often have a bad reputation, with people fearing that they will get bitten or have them fly into their hair – neither of which will happen.

These much maligned creatures are absolutely fascinating. The old English word for a bat – flittermouse, and the German word Fledermaus – suggest that bats are mice with wings and yet they are actually more closely related to humans than they are to mice.

We humans could learn a lot from this cousin of ours. Unlike many animals, some bats have been known to be altruistic. If one of their colony has not eaten well on a feeding excursion, others will feed it by regurgitating a little of their own food into its mouth, even though they have nothing to gain from doing this.

Bats account for a quarter of all mammals in the UK and 20% of mammals worldwide. They are the only mammals which aretruly able to fly – flying squirrels only glide. They are split into two types: megabats, which eat fruit and microbats, which eat insects. There are 18 different species in the UK, all of which are micro bats.

Despite the saying “as blind as a bat”, bats are not blind – they just have limited vision. They mostly navigate by echolocation – emitting sounds and judging the position of things by the way the sound bounces back to them. Imagine bouncing a ball against a wall and catching it. The further from the wall you stand, the longer it takes for the ball to bounce back to you. This system is so sophisticated that bats can detect insects in flight, and catch them to eat. And if it can detect something as small as an insect, there is no way it’s not going to notice you, so it won’t ever get close enough to tangle itself in your hair.

Each species of bat emits their sounds at slightly different frequencies, and bat detectors can be used to pick this up and convert them into a lower frequency sounds that the human ear can hear. By taking the frequency and flight pattern into consideration it is possible to work out what sort of bat you can see.

Why not take a walk along a river, or around a lake after the sun has gone down, and take a few moments to appreciate these not-too-distant relatives of ours?