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Was a little surprised I couldn't find a previous question asking about the phrase "Ain't Seen Nothing Yet". I try to decode its meaning every time I hear the song of the same name by Bachman Turner Overdrive.

If you process each word by itself it seems (to me) that the message is "You have not seen nothing; therefore, you have seen something"; but I don't think this is the intent of the phrase. Maybe I've over-analyzed this too much? The addition of "yet" even further complicates things.

Music Lyrics snipplet for the unmusical:

I met a devil woman
She took my heart away
She said, I've had it comin' to me
But I wanted it that way
I say that any love is good lovin'
So I took what I could get mmh, mmh, mmh
She looked at me with them brown eyes

And said, You ain't seen nothin' yet
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain't seen n-n-n-nothin' yet
Here's something that you're never gonna forget
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain't seen n-n-n-nothin' yet
And you're thinkin' you ain't been around, that's right

EDIT: Definitely not looking for lyrics interpretation... this song is the only time I really hear the phrase however and it distracts me every time I hear it.

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5 Answers

Aside from some very marked contexts[1], "You ain't seen nothing yet", (and the equivalent using standard verb forms "You haven't seen nothing yet"), does not mean, and never has meant, "You have seen something" in any dialect of English. This is because English is not logic, it is a human language and used by humans, and humans like to pile on the negatives when they want to express something negative.

After somebody invented a rule that said you shouldn't say "not seen nothing", generations of pedants and pedagogues have made this ridiculous claim (that the negatives cancel out) in order to provide some rationalisation for the arbitrary rule.

"You ain't see nothing yet!" unambiguously says "you haven't seen anything yet", with the implication that "what you have seen is nothing in comparison with what is to come".

[1] One can concoct an example like "You think that's got nothing? No, you watch (name some film the speaker thinks is boring) and then you'll see nothing. You ain't seen nothing yet!" where the two negatives do cancel out. But this depends both on context and on particular intonation.

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Chaucer is particularly rich in examples of multiple negation. –  Barrie England Nov 1 '11 at 17:42
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It means something along the lines of "More is coming; this is only the beginning."

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"You ain't seen nothing" is a double negative that means "you haven't seen anything". "You ain't seen nothing yet" is different and could very easily be taken to mean "this is only the beginning". –  Joel Brown Nov 1 '11 at 16:49
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It's a double negative, similar to "we don't need no education" and actually means "I haven't seen anything." As for what it means in the context of the lyrics is up to your own interpretation and wouldn't be suitable for this site, as this isn't the place to interpret lyrics.

A similar phrase is "you don't know nothing," which is supposed to mean "you don't know anything."

Beware that double negatives like these aren't strictly grammatical, but rather used only in spoken English.

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Or, rather, they are no longer grammatical in Standard English. –  Barrie England Nov 1 '11 at 17:38
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People often say that a double negative is a positive, on the grounds that if you multiply two negative numbers together you get a positive number. This assumes that, (a) grammar must follow the rules of arithmetic, which is a highly assumption offerred with no evidence; and (b) that double negatives are analagous to multiplication, rather than to addition -- recall that if you add two negative numbers together, you get a bigger negative, not a positive.

In practice, even in carefully constructed, grammatically correct sentences, this arbitrary double-negative rule does not necessarily apply.

Example 1: "We urged Bob to reject the offer, but he refused to say no." This is the classic double-negative: "refused to say no" means in context that he said yes.

Example 2: "I will not say 'no' if asked." This is something like an example of a double negative being a positive, but not really. There is a big difference here between "I said 'yes'" and "I did not say 'no'". The first is a clear positive, the second is a, presumably deliberate, mushy ambiguity.

Example 3: "I tell you I am not, NOT, going to do it!" Anyone who supposes that the double "not" means that the person is saying he IS going to do it is clearly missing the point. The double negative is intended to intensify the negative. Like arithmetic, I guess, we're adding two negatives together.

"You ain't seen nothing yet" is poor grammar, even without the disfavored contraction it would be "You have not seen nothing yet", which doesn't make much literal sense. If the person did not see nothing, does that mean that he saw something? That he was looking for nothing but couldn't find it? But clearly in context the intent is to emphasize the "not". The meaning is, "You thought you saw something interesting, but you only saw a small sample, there is much more to come."

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Your introductory paragraph is misleading; there's a plenty of 'evidence' to set such expectations. For example logic. Either common or formal. You are simplifying matters too much, even wikipedia has a decent entry: "In most logics and some languages, double negatives cancel one another and produce an affirmative sense; in other languages, doubled negatives intensify the negation." –  Unreason Nov 1 '11 at 17:54
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If you just look upon the logical parts of an English sentence as an exercise in boolean logic, you would indeed (incorrectly) conclude that two negatives make a positive. In Standard English, many would argue this is in fact the case.

However, English is not a boolean algebra expression language, and "Ain't seen nothin' yet", is not derived from Standard English (where it would indeed be seen as ungrammatical).

This phrase comes from African American Vernacular English. One of the features of that dialect is negative concord, or the concept that to negate the meaning of a sentence, all negatable components of a sentence should be negated. Thus, if I wan't to say that I don't have any money in AAVE, I'd say "I don't got no money."

So ain't seen nothing yet is AAVE for a more standard English haven't seen anything yet.

This is particularly important for music, as AAVE is the language community from which the Blues sprung, and Rock & Roll is sort of a child of the Blues. Thus you are quite likely to encounter AAVE dialect in Rock songs.

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I've no doubt that it occurs in AAVE, but your evidence that it comes from it? The OED's earliest instance (of "heard" rather than "seen") is Al Jolson from 1919: not impossible for it to be from AAVE, but not compelling either. –  Colin Fine Nov 8 '11 at 13:14
    
@ColinFine - Actually, this is a very good point. AAVE is far from the only dialect of English that uses negative concord. However, your Jolsen reference does nothing but back up the AAVE theorem. He was a huge fan and proponent of African American music and entertainers. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Jolson#Relations_with_blacks . It's pretty much a guarantee that Jolson got it from AAVE. –  T.E.D. Nov 8 '11 at 14:24
    
No, it's not a guarantee, unless you can show that that particular phrase was current in AAVE and not in other varieties of Englsh at the time. –  Colin Fine Nov 9 '11 at 12:46
    
@ColinFine - Perhaps I can't show that, but it takes very little research to show that Jolson's work in general, and that line in particular, were African-American styled works. The line comes from The Jazz Singer, which was about a Jewish boy disappointing his parents by taking up African-American culture and music. You'd need something pretty compelling to argue that was any other dialect other than AAVE. –  T.E.D. Nov 9 '11 at 14:28
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