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.

Of Valkyries and Slaves

As you probably all know by now, I love learning new things. I love reading, I love adult education classes and I love online courses. What I especially enjoy is the fact that sometimes on these courses or in these books, links are made for me that I should have made myself but just somehow never did. A couple of such moments happened during a course about Vikings that I had downloaded from the Great Courses.

I know quite a bit about Greek and Roman mythology. Somewhat less about Egyptian mythology and embarrassingly little about Norse mythology. However one thing I do know is that the myths all “explain” natural phenomena in some way – for a civilisation that didn’t understand the orbit of the earth around the sun, a sun god makes perfect sense, for example. So when I learnt on this course that the Valkyries of Norse mythology were meant as a way of explain the northern lights, I thought, “Oh yes, of course!” I should have realised that, and yet it had never occurred to me before that the reason there is no equivalent to the Valkyries in the other mythologies I’ve learnt about is that the they are too far south to have needed to explain the aurora borealis,

In the same course I learnt about the “slav” in words such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and slavic. I had noticed in passing that the words all contained “slav” which sounds very much like the English word “slave” and yet I hadn’t made the next link. In fact it seems the Vikings weren’t averse to trading in slaves, and the countries we now describe as “Slavic” are the ones that they captured their slaves from.

I’m sure there are many more lightbulb moments to be had as I progress through the course, and I’m looking forward to coming across them.

What is Los Santos Inocentes?

The Mexican festival of Los Santos Inocentes (the innocent saints) is similar to our April Fools’ Day. It is celebrated on December 28th and it was originally to recall the innocent children killed by King Herod.

It was known at first as a day when you could borrow something and not have to return it, so people would try to trick others into lending them something valuable on that day. Nowadays it is a day for practical jokes in general.

Related post: Poisson d’avril

What are Las Posadas?

Las Posadas are processions which take place in Mexico on nine consecutive evenings leading up to Christmas Eve. A boy and a girl are chosen to represent Mary and Joseph and they process through the town, carrying lanterns and candles, and re-enacting the story of Joseph and Mary being turned away from the inns.

They sing at each of the houses they stop at. Each night a different house is  chosen to be the one that offers shelter, and a party is hosted there. There is a meal with carols (called villancicos), small gifts of fruit and sweets are exchanged and the children break a piñata shaped like a star.

The Festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe

The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Mexico. The story says that she appeared three times in December 1531 to a poor man by the name of Juan Diego. Each time, she told him to tell the bishop to build a church on that spot.

After the first two appearances the bishop didn’t believe the story, but after the third time a rose bush grew on the spot where she had appeared, and her image could be seen on Juan Diego’s cloak. After that, the bishop believed him and the church, the Basilica de Guadeloupe, was built.

The festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe begins the Christmas celebrations in Mexico. It   lasts for nine Days, from 3rd to 12th December and pilgrimages are made to the church during this time. On the 11th December there are fireworks and light displays and people dance until the following morning which is her feast day.