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.

Z is for Zulu

Zulu – or isiZulu as it is called by native speakers – is one of post-Apartheid South Africa’s 11 official languages. Linguistically, it is a language of the Nguni group, spoken in Southern Africa.  More widely it is part of the Bantu family, which includes numerous languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. Within that family, it is the second most widely spoken after Swahili.  There are around 10 million native Zulu speakers, mainly living in or originating from the Zululand region of South Africa, with a further 14 million South Africans speaking Zulu as a second language. Understood by over half of the population, it is the most widely spoken of the country’s official languages.

It is hard to put a date on when the Zulu language first emerged, as it was originally only a spoken language and is so close to those spoken by neighbouring peoples. The group of languages it belongs to has been spoken in Southern Africa for many centuries. However, the Zulu tribe emerged as a defined separate grouping during the 18th Century, becoming established as a major regional military and political power by the early 19th Century, so the assumption is that their dialect became a distinct language at or just before this time. It was Christian missionaries working in Southern Africa who first attempted to document and write down the Zulu language.  For this reason, like other African languages, it is written in the Latin alphabet. The first grammar book was completed in 1850 and the first book ever to be published in Zulu – a bible translation – appeared in 1883.

The most noticeable feature of Zulu, like other Southern African languages, is the existence of click sounds. This is something distinctive to the Southern part of the continent and is very rare in other regions. Zulu has a total of fifteen click sounds – five variations of the three “basic” types of click. Needless to say, these clicks are very difficult for non-native speakers to reproduce and most have to make do with an approximation of the true click effect.  Probably the most famous example of Zulu clicks can be found in Miriam Makeba’s “Click Song” .   Another very complex feature are the word classes (equivalent to genders in other languages), of which Zulu has no fewer than 16!

 Today, Zulu is taught as a first language in the province of KwaZulu Natal, and as a second language throughout South Africa (where students taking English or Afrikaans as a first language must also study an African language). There are numerous Zulu-language TV and radio stations in KwaZulu Natal and in major South African cities, Zulu newspapers and magazines, and many books and films now being released in the language.

Because it is a relatively modern language and was to a great extent suppressed by colonialists and later during the Apartheid era, very few Zulu words are used in standard English.  The only real examples are the names of African animals – for example, impala and mamba were originally Zulu words. The situation is different in South Africa itself, where numerous Zulu words and phrases are very much part of modern South African English.

One place many of us will definitely have heard genuine Zulu is in the famous song “Circle of Life” from the film “The Lion King”. While the character names in the film are mainly derived from Swahili, with other influences from Masai, the opening lines of that iconic song are Zulu:

“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba Sithi uhhmm ingonyama

Ingonyama Siyo Nqoba
Ingonyama Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala”, which means

“Here comes a lion, father Oh yes it’s a lion
Here comes a lion, father Oh yes it’s a lion, a lion
We’re going to conquer
A lion, a lion and a leopard come to this open place”

Thank you to my wonderful husband, Ian Braisby, for this post. Ian can be found at www.iabtours.com

Linguistic Predictions

Last year my husband and I downloaded several linguistics courses from the Great Courses. I know I know – this is my idea of a good time. I’m so rock and roll! Anyway, a lot of the lectures were about how language changes and evolves, and one of them was about predictions of how English will continue to change. I’ve decided to write and publish my own predictions as I think it will be interesting to look back on this in 30 or 40 years’ time to see how accurate I was.

First of all, I believe that ‘would of’, ‘could of’ and ‘should of’ will become an accepted alternative to ‘could have’, ‘would have’ and ‘should have’. It may even become the standard. This is one Professor John McWhorter, who wrote the course we listened to, disagrees with me about. I’m not as convinced as him, and this is why:

It’s a common mistake. I already see it in writing as often as I see the correct version – amongst the younger generations more than amongst the older ones. I’ve seen teachers using it, which means it is probably going uncorrected in some classes, which means it is likely to continue taking hold amongst the younger generations. Some of those who grow up believing it is correct will go on to become teachers and the error will continue to be passed on to future generations.

Self-publishing is becoming more widespread. There are lots of aspiring writers out there, and the publishing companies don’t take them all on. But it’s easier than ever to self-publish and still get your books out there. Some self-published writers still put their work through a rigorous proofing and editing process, but some don’t. Some books I’ve picked up have contained a shocking number of errors – ‘could of’, ‘would of’, ‘should of’ amongst them – and I’ve deleted them from my Kindle reader in disgust. I’m sure there will be a growing number of people over time who see these mistakes and think, “It’s published so it must be correct.”

Another change I’ve noticed sneaking into our language is a confusion between the past tense and the past participle. Instead of saying ‘I wrote’ / ‘I have written’   or   ‘I ran’ / ‘I have run’   and ‘I rang’ / ‘I have rung’,   people are saying, ‘I have wrote’ (I’ve wrote a letter to parents about the school trip), ‘I have rang’ (I’ve rang his parents several times about his behaviour), and ‘I have ran’ (I’ve ran after school clubs for the last 3 years). Again I’ve noticed lots of teachers using these so they are clearly being passed onto the next generation via the classroom.  ‘I have wrote’ occurs quite frequently in Jane Austen so it looks as though this particular grammatical construction has changed direction and is now heading back to how it used to be. I’m not sure what the linguistic explanation for this phenomenon is, but if anybody knows I’d be really interested in hearing it.

What else do I think will change? Punctuation, and the apostrophe in particular. There seems to be an increasing number of people who not only fail to place them where they should be, but also litter texts with unneeded ones and even confuse them with commas. A perfect example of all three of these errors is the sandwich shop near me called “Sarahs Buttie,s”. I think eventually there will be a law passed to abolish apostrophes completely.

I don’t think our government will follow our German and French cousins with spelling reforms, as quirky spelling is far too ingrained in our culture, but I do predict one spelling change. As names come in and out of fashion, I think the name of the good professor I mentioned at the beginning of this piece will fall out of use and John will be replaced by Jhon. This seems to be the most common name chosen by children to use in stories and I’ve never yet come across one who has placed the ‘h’ in the correct place!

M is for Maori

MMaori belongs to the Eastern Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. It is spoken by the Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) and has been an official language of New Zealand since 1987. Until the late 18th century it was the only language, closely related to Tahitian and Hawai’ian.

After the arrival of British settlers in New Zealand, English became the dominant language and only English was allowed to be spoken in school. Children who spoke Maori were punished. By the 1980s only about 20% of the Maori people spoke Te Reo as the language is known in Maori. Te Reo (short for Te Reo Maori) means “the language”.

From the 1980s there have been efforts to save the language from extinction, but it is still vulnerable and appears on the UNESCO endangered languages list.

One of the ways to protect the language was the setting up of “language nests” known as Kohanga Reo which is an immersion program for pre-school children where they socialise with older generations who are fluent speakers.

If you’d like to find out more about Maori and few words, there’s an interesting free course at Open2Study. You may also like this list of words.

Related posts:  L is for Latvian and Lithuanian     N is for……

L is for Latvian and Lithuanian

LThese two languages are the only two surviving languages of the Baltic subdivision of Proto-Indo-European. They are also believed to be the ones which are closest, linguistically speaking, to PIE, retaining many of its features. Although they probably started out as dialects of each other, they now have very different vocabularies and are not mutually intelligible. Both languages use the Latin alphabet.

Latvian is spoken by approximately 1.3 million native speakers and a further 700,000 people speak it as a second language. Lithuanian has about 3 ½ million speakers.

Related posts: K is for Korean and Kickapoo    M is for….