Negative Concord or “The Double Negative”

Old letter
Old letter

This I found extremely interesting. We speakers of English feel that the negative of a negative is a positive. Such as the opposite of light is dark, the opposite of evil is good, the un-no (or opposite of no) is yes. On page 256 under d. we are informed that “the rule of Negative Concord is a sort of agreement rule: once the sentence is marked as a negative, every word that can be marked as negative must so be marked…it is the standard method of forming negatives in many languages of the world, including French and Spanish.” (Clark)

I understand the idea, get the concept, but this makes me wonder. Do people learning English as a second language have a hard time understanding the way we designate opposites? We use the “un-“ prefix often (unclean, unavailable, unknown) to indicate “not” that word (not clean, not available, not known.) If we were to say, “Not unclean” it would mean the opposite of unclean which is clean, but in a sort of vague way.

This also makes me wonder why, in English, we don’t have the same sort of agreement. Is it because of the Latin influences, or the German ones? Why is it when something is not not something, in English, it is the first thing? And why does even thinking in double negatives trip me up? It’s like stumbling at the top the stairs when we forget that there’s one more, or at the bottom of the stairs thinking that there is one more. Is it simply because of our language training? Is having everything in a negative sentence negative actually a more natural way to approach communication?

—– Sarah Ockershausen Delp

Clark, Mary M. “Formation of Compoundsand Idiomatic PhrasesSocial-Class Dialects.” Clark, Mary M. The Structure of Enhligh for Readers, Writers, and Teachers. Glenn Allen: College Publishing, 2010. 255-256. Print. 18 Apr 2015.

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