LINGUIST List 3.800

Tue 20 Oct 1992

Disc: Negatives

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  1. Jane Edwards, listlessness of negatives

Message 1: listlessness of negatives

Date: Mon, 19 Oct 92 20:00:11 -0listlessness of negatives
From: Jane Edwards <edwardscogsci.Berkeley.EDU>
Subject: listlessness of negatives

Henry Kucera's query concerning "I could care less" made me wonder about
a couple of other constructions also involving negatives:

(1) "I can't hardly wait"; "I couldn't scarcely believe my eyes."
in which there are logically too many rather than too few negatives
(according to my dialect of American English),

(2) the following constructions, which seem common these days in advertising:
 We sell more cars than anyone.
 We do X like no one. (where X is something desireable)
which in my dialect would need an "else" (which I would see as a
set-defining negative term) to avoid being self-contradictory.

(3) positive polarity "anymore" - "we shop at Safeway anymore".
already discussed on Linguist (and not admissible in my dialect).

(4) the use of double negatives in some Indo-Eur. languages but
not in others (i.e., Romance vs. Germanic), and in some dialects
of English but not in others.

>From these and others, one gets the general impression that NEGATIVE
semantic elements are able to wander rather fluidly around in
utterances (perhaps more than other semantic elements?) independently
of the morphemes that initially encode them, and so, end up sometimes
redundantly marked, and sometimes ellided and expressed/attached
somewhere else or somehow else entirely.

This is very surprising in one sense, since "direct contradiction"
(i.e., presence or absence of a negative) would seem to be the most
jarring semantic contrast available to a speaker! But maybe this is
just one further demonstration of the importance of connected discourse
in language use and change, and indirectly also support for
construction-level meaning: Within a discourse context, and with
prosodic and cotextual cues, the presence or absence of an intended
negative will almost never be misunderstood as meaning the OPPOSITE of
what the speaker intended, even if that is what the literal meaning of
the utterance would be. Recoverability of meaning from context plus
constructions seems also needed to explain how it's possible for a
language to *change* toward having an extra negative as an emphatic,
reinforcing the negative (as perhaps in Romance), instead of reversing
the polarity or truth conditions of the utterance (or conversely).
Otherwise, it would seem that such a change would cause a period of
massive confusion for speakers and hence wouldn't occur at all.

No matter what the explanation, though, it is surprising to realize
that negatives - of all things - can shift so freely, when their usual
meaning is contradiction (as with "Not!") .. or so it seems to me.

-Jane Edwards (edwardscogsci.berkeley.edu)
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