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Decline of Multiple Negation

In Middle English sentential negation typically consisted of two parts, ne and not. Indefinites in negative clauses were also expressed by negative forms, a sentential negator co-occurring with no, never, neither, etc. Ne, the first element of the sentential negator, was practically lost by the end of the fifteenth century, and multiple negation with indefinites had almost disappeared from most kinds of writing by the end of the seventeenth century.13 But it did not disappear from the vernacular, and continues to be used in many regional varieties of Present-day English.

In Early Modern English the disappearance of multiple negation is connected with the rise of single negation accompanied by nonassertive indefinites (any, ever, either, etc.). Example (4.39) illustrates a case of multiple negation, and (4.40) single negation followed by the nonassertive indefinite pronoun anything. Multiple negation could also sometimes appear with nonassertive forms in the sixteenth century, as in the letter by Sir Thomas More in (4.41). The decline of multiple negation was linguistically conditioned: multiple negation was preserved in coordinate and additive structures, typically those containing nor or neither, much later than in simple constructions; see (4.42).

  • (4.39) And that sawe y never yn no place but ther (John Yeme, 1466?; Stonor, I, 78)
  • (4.40) it hath bene for that I haue not hade anything to wryt of to your aduauncement. (Thomas Cromwell, 1523; Cromwell, I, 313)
  • (4.41) there shall no poore neghebore of myne berre no losse by eny chaunce hapned in my howse. (Thomas More, 1529; More, 423)
  • (4.42) the dewke of Gelder send me no vord vat I sale do, nor heelpes me nat with notheng, as Petter sale chove yov. (Edmund de la Pole, 1505; Rerum, I, 254)

Figure 4.12 compares the distributions of multiple and single negation in the CEEC. Instances of single negation only include those with nonassertive indefinites (Nevalainen 1998: 267-272). A further distinction is made between simple and coordinate/additive constructions. As Figure 4.12 shows, multiple negation disappears from simple structures in the course of the sixteenth century, but is retained considerably longer in coordinate and additive constructions. In the last period of our corpus (1660-1681), nearly all simple cases take nonassertive forms, while the corresponding figure for coordinate/ additive constructions remains slightly below 80 per cent.

Single vs. multiple negation with nonassertive indefinites. Percentages of single negation in simple and coordinate constructions. CEEC 1998 and Supplement

Figure 4.12. Single vs. multiple negation with nonassertive indefinites. Percentages of single negation in simple and coordinate constructions. CEEC 1998 and Supplement.

 
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