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Last sync:2022-12-28 07:15
In which John discusses double negatives in English (and French), negative concord, the brilliant use of double negatives in Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," Smash Mouth's "All Star," and whether it doesn't make sense not to live for fun.

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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.  So if you want to say 'I don't know' in French, which is the only sentence of French I really learned in three years of high school classes, you say 'Je ne sais pas' and both the 'ne' and the 'pas' in that sentence are negative because in French, multiple negatives affirm each other, a phenomenon called negative concord, which, by the way, would be a pretty good tagline for the social internet.  

Lots of languages, from Hebrew to Portuguese, use negative concord, but in English, and some other languages, double negatives can actually mean positives.  Like, two 'no's can equal a 'yes'.  Sometimes.  Of course, it can't be simple.

Like, let me give you an example.  If you say in English, 'I'm not not tired', that means you likely are tired and potentially very tired because sometimes double negatives are used to create a kind of understatement.  On the other hand, you can feel something adjacent to tired that isn't quite tired, like the weird feeling of being not not tired late at night when your brain is churning.

It can be very confusing, like, 'I don't disagree' generally means 'I do agree', but 'I'm not going nowhere' generally doesn't mean I'm going somewhere.

So when I was a kid, I was taught that double negatives were merely wrong in English, because they introduced confusion and needless complexity, but in fact, they serve lots of different purposes and even the most like, prescriptivist grammarian would acknowledge that a sentence like 'I am not disgruntled' is grammatically correct because it sounds ludicrous to say 'I am gruntled', but even in their more common usages, English double negatives can offer a lot of richness and nuance.  

Like consider the famous Pink Floyd lyric, "We don't need no education.  We don't need no thought control."  This is sung by a chorus of schoolchildren in Pink Floyd's rock album The Wall and the kids are arguing that they don't need education, at least not this rigid system of education that force-feeds them certain values and attempts to form all of them into identical bricks that can fit into a vast wall, and so in the lyric, the kids are rejecting the use of proper or educated English by using a double negative, but their meaning is still very clear and powerful, which is the point of language, and that undermines the idea that like, proper English is somehow superior to any other English.  

Language is here to facilitate expression, not limit it, and these kids are rejecting a system of education that uses language as another tool to enforce uniformity and limit free expression.  In the end, language does shape thought and so attempts to control language really are forms of attempting thought control and we don't need no thought control.  

Which brings us, at last, Hank, to the use of the double negative in another classic rock and roll song, Smashmouth's "All Star", which includes the lyric "Didn't make sense not to live for fun."  I think the negatives here are meant to cancel each other out so why didn't they just sing, "It makes sense to live for fun"?  Well, for starters, it doesn't fit the meter, of course, but I think there might be something else going on.

"It makes sense to live for fun" is a present tense statement about the right way to live a human life.  "It didn't make sense not to live for fun" is a past tense statement about a failed way at living a human life.  Like, all we know is that the speaker tried one way of living, for fun, and found that it didn't work.  That's not the same thing as saying that their new way of living does work, and in that way, 'it didn't make sense not to live for fun' feels much more uncertain and conflicted whereas 'it makes sense to live for fun' feels kinda naive.

Now, Hank, I'm not gonna argue that All Star is like a work of rock opera genius or whatever.  It obviously isn't, but I do find that lyric interesting.  All Star does celebrate the excitement of being thought of as an all star, but it's also a little wary of that excitement.  Like, I find it very telling that in the hand-written first draft of the song, the lyric "only shooting stars break the mold" originally read, "wave bye bye to your soul".  

In short, I think All Star might be a song about celebrity written by people who didn't not want fame, which isn't quite the same thing as wanting it, and if that's the case, didn't make sense not to live for fun is a pretty great double negative.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.