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In present-day English, a double negative as an intensifier is regarded as non-standard. For example I don't think that "I can't get no satisfaction" is considered as standard English. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoxRFOr_sQ0

However, here's from Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2.

O, most wicked speed, to post

With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

It is not, nor it cannot come to good;

But break my heart,--for I must hold my tongue!

Notice that "nor it cannot come to good" is a double negative. And Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark who is supposed to be well-educated.

Here's from the Abbot's:

Many irregularities may be explained by the desire of emphasis which suggests repetition, even where repetition, as in the case of a negative, neutralizes the original phrase: ... This idiom is a very natural one, and quite common in E.E. (E. A. Abbott, A Shakespearean Grammar, Item 406, p.295) https://archive.org/details/shakespeariangra034962mbp

So here's my question.

Since when a double negative as an intensifier was considered as non-standard and why?

  • 3
    For clarity, the term 'double negative', used as something to avoid as non-standard in English, almost always refers to replacing 'any' with 'no' . "We don't need any badges!" -> "We don't need no badges!" (or 'ever' with 'never'). – Mitch Nov 13 '14 at 2:39
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    It should perhaps be called negative concord rather than double negative. – curiousdannii Nov 13 '14 at 2:53
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The rise and fall of negative concord in English was a very long process.

Negative concord was present, but neither rare nor particularly common, in 'classical' OE. But at some time during the somewhat obscure transition from OE to ME the then OE negative particle ne was “weakened”, tending to narrow its scope in many cases from clausal to narrowly verbal negation. (Among the reasons conjectured for this are the particle's phonetic lightness and growing pressure from Scandinavian-influence northern forms.) This gave rise to an increased dependence on negative concord: a countervailing use of additional phrasal negators, particularly the new word not, which was originally a noun, a worn-down form of the noun nawiht > naught. Negative concord was ‘standard’ literary practice in the 13th and 14th centuries.

However, the phonetically heavier not almost entirely supplanted ne by the late 15th or early 16th century, and negative concord began to decline again. The process was accelerated in the 16th century with the growing literary use of non-assertive forms (e.g. any) as negative polarity items, and by Shakespeare's day negative concord was in rapid retreat. It had virtually disappeared from literary use by the Restoration.

With respect to Hamlet's use, the illustration below is of interest. It is drawn from T. Nevalainen, ‘Negative Concord as an English “Vernacular Universal”: Social history and linguistic typology’, Journal of English Linguistics 34, 2006, 257– 278, but I do not have access to this paper and I cannot vouch for its methodology or conclusions. I found it in this class handout from CUNY. It appears to show that it was the “social aspirers among the professionals” who drove the adoption of non-assertive forms, with the better sort lagging. This is hardly surprising—the Establishment, even when it is eager for literary innovation, is rarely the source of innovation itself—but it does seem to justify Shakespeare’s putting the old-fashioned use in Hamlet’s mouth.

   Negative Concord According to Social Rank

Note that negative concord maintained a significant presence in the lower orders after the Restoration. It survives there to this day.

  • My guess is that the rise of prescriptive grammar in the 18th century has something to do with the problem. – ivanhoescott Nov 15 '14 at 20:41
  • @ivanhoescott Not in this case; single negation was firmly established before the 18th century stylists came along. To be sure, they deprecated the double negative - it was still around in the vernacular. But that was their job; the audiences for whom they wrote were the middle-class social aspirers who wanted to learn to write and speak like their social betters. – StoneyB Nov 15 '14 at 21:09
  • @ivanhoescott Just take a look at the table: negative concord is virtual gone in the literary classes by 1660-81. – StoneyB Nov 15 '14 at 23:54
  • If we naively extrapolate the graph, it seems that negative concord would vanish even among people of lower ranks in 21st century. This does not seem to be the case. microsyntax.sites.yale.edu/negative-concord – ivanhoescott Nov 16 '14 at 0:14
  • @ivanhoescott Yes, but: 1) keep in mind that the graph reflects only literary use - we obviously have only indirect records of spoken use. It is only among the highly literate that literary forms control spoken usage, and for most of our history high literacy was very rare. 2) Mass media and the internet have made previously stigmatized forms far more visible. 3) Negative concord is a strong 'index' to social identity, and there is some evidence suggesting that it is employed, if not actually cultivated, to express anti-authoritarian attitudes. ... – StoneyB Nov 16 '14 at 2:40
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The sentence you have cited from Hamlet does not show a double negative.

"It is not, nor it cannot come to good;" means

  • It is not good (presently) nor can it come to be good (in the future).
  • The Oxford Shakespeare Hamlet edited by G. R. Hibbard says at p.164: nor it cannot Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, often uses the double negative for emphasis(Abbot 406). amazon.com/The-Oxford-Shakespeare-Hamlet-Classics/dp/0199535817 – ivanhoescott Nov 13 '14 at 6:41
  • That is incorrect. Please read the 3rd answer from Omrud here: "It translates as: It has not come to good, and it cannot come to good." englishforums.com/English/ItCannotGood/mgwkn/post.htm It matters not what the ferkakte Oxford Shakespeare Hamlet book supposedly says. Ferkakte is Yiddish, by the way. – Brian Hamilton Nov 13 '14 at 6:49
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    @BrianHamilton. I think you have misunderstood both the expression double negative and Hibbard's explanation. "nor ... cannot" is a double negative nor (negative) + cannot (negative) . A modern pedant might insist that the two negatives cancel each other. Hibbard correctly points out that they emphasise each other in Shakespeare's words. – tunny Nov 13 '14 at 9:30

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