“I Ain’t Got No Money,” Part Two: So Much Negativity!

Before launching into the topic of this blog, I want to establish two things:

1) The sole purpose of language is communication—that is, the conveyance of meaning from one person or group of people to another person or group of people. If those being addressed understand what the speaker/writer means, then successful communication has occurred, whether or not the message was deemed “grammatical.”

2) In the history of the world, “I ain’t got no money” has NEVER, ever meant “I have money.” Not in spoken language, not in written language, not in Morse code, not in semaphore, smoke signals, Braille, cyphers, or charades. If someone utters that phrase, the listener, no matter how grammatically pedantic, knows the speaker means he is broke, not flush with cash. He may object to the usage and think less of the speaker’s level of education for saying it that way, but he understands what was meant.

Aside from the use of the word “ain’t,” which I covered in my last post, the high school grammarian would object to the phrase on the grounds that it violates the rule against those dreaded double negatives.

Let’s talk about that.

Once upon a time in the history of the English language, the more negatives one piled into a sentence, the more negative the sentence became. Thus, “I ain’t got no money” would be a more emphatic way of saying “I don’t have any money.” It would not mean, “I do have money.” Similarly, “I ain’t got nobody and nobody ain’t got me” meant the poor speaker is really lonely, not that s/he has more significant others than s/he knows what to do with.

Along comes a fellow named Robert Lowth (1710-1787). The Bishop of London and self-appointed defender of the English language, Lowth wrote a book in 1762 called A Short Introduction to English Grammar, a text that was used well into the 20th century. It was there that he declared double negatives to be a no-no. (And no, “no-no” does not mean yes!) His reasoning was this: in math, -1 x -1 = 1. In other words, two negative numbers multiplied together yields a positive number. This is true. In mathematics. But why he thought he could, or should, apply the rules of math to language is perplexing. For instance, if one can multiply “ain’t got” times “no money” and come up with “do have money,” then why can’t we multiply other words together? What does “rhinoceros” times “hemoglobin” mean? “Onomatopoeia” times “ontology?” “Nanosecond” times “appositive?”

Also, if we can multiply words together, can we divide them? Add them? Subtract them? Calculate their square root? What is the square root of “baboon,” anyway?

Of course, the next question is, if we can apply math rules to language, can we apply language rules to math? How does one conjugate the number 7? What’s the past participle of 26? What’s the direct object of 6 + 6?

Looked at in this manner, the stricture against double negatives is silly. Sorry, Dr. Lowth, language is not a series of mathematical equations. Claiming that “I ain’t got no money” means “I have money” just makes you an old fuss-budget. You know damn well what is meant, so knock it off, okay?

Now, that said, I was brought up in the same culture and same school systems as everyone else in America. I’ve been trained to write and speak the “proper” way, and in professional venues, such as, oh say, publishing a book, I toe the line. But I refuse to be a grammar Nazi and “correct” people when they’re simply engaging in everyday conversation or sending an email. How they choose to communicate ain’t nobody’s business but their own.

A parting thought: A Short Introduction to English Grammar is also notorious for its ban on “prepositional stranding.” You’re more familiar with this phrase as “ending a sentence with a preposition.” Apparently Dr. Lowth didn’t like that because the poet John Dryden didn’t like it, so Lowth made a rule against it. In one of life’s delightful little ironies, in arguing against prepositional stranding, Dr. Lowth uses this phrase in a sentence: “This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to…”

Atta boy, Doc, show ‘em how it’s done. 

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