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“I don’t want no double negation!”

Negative constructions in African American Vernacular English

Hausarbeit 2009 16 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Negation in Standard English
2.1 Formation of negative clauses in Standard English
2.2 The Scope of Negation
2.3 Semantic confusion with multiple negation

3. Negation in African American Vernacular English
3.1 The negator ain’t
3.2 Multiple negation and negative concord
3.2.1 Negative concord to verbs within the same clause
3.2.2 Negative concord to indefinites in the same clause
3.2.3 Negative concord across clause boundaries
3.2.4 Undefined types of negation

4. Conclusion

5. Sources

1. Introduction

Imagine an English lesson in a fifth grade somewhere in the USA. The class consists of 25 pupils – ten of them are noticeably of African descent. The white teacher gives instructions to the pupils, wanting them to write an imaginative story about a topic of their own choice. A black boy in the last row raises his arm, asking: “So there ain’t no restriction at all?” The teacher – visibly annoyed by the pupil’s interrogation – shouts in his direction: “I don’t want no double negation in your texts!”

Although this story arose from my imagination, this little anecdote directly leads me to the topic of this paper: Negation in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

The situation described above might seem funny – especially because the teacher uses double negation in his answer himself – but its content appears to be sad reality for millions of black students all over the United States of America:

White teachers do not accept ‘Black Talk’ as a proper language to be used in official institutions like schools but tend to call its speech patterns and expressions – that have been proved by many linguists in the past decades to be part of an own scienti­fically accepted language system – orthographically and grammatically wrong. As Geneva Smitherman states it in the preface of her book “Talking That Talk” (2000):

It [is] obvious that despite decades of research and scholarly work on Ebonics, there are still large numbers of people who do not accept the scientific facts about this language spoken by millions of Americans of African descent.1

Since this is the case I became interested in the specific features that make AAVE so distinctive from other varieties of English. During my researches I found one gram­matical phenomenon that might not be completely unique to AAVE but which con­tains a variety of smaller distinctive features, namely the field of negative construc­tions in AAVE.

In this paper I want to investigate the various grammatical phenomena related to ne­gation in the African American vernacular. Since grammar always becomes a more lively and joyful thing to look at when it is explained with the help of examples from real life conversations or other authentic speaking situations I decided to use lyrics of Rap music written and performed by Afro-American Hip Hop artists Eric B., Rakim, Tupac Shakur and his Hip Hop group Thug Life to illustrate the grammatical rules and features discussed in this paper.

2. Negation in Standard English

Of course negation is no grammatical phenomenon unique only to AAVE: Every language spoken by human beings features a certain set of possibilities to deny or to negate not only questions but simple statements and utterances as well, because “for cognitive and pragmatic reasons every language must have the possibility of asser­tion that the state of affairs expressed by a sentence is not true.”2

2.1 Formation of negative clauses in Standard English

The appropriate set of these possibilities in Standard English (SE) is relatively easy to describe: According to Wu, English is a “typical SVO language”3. Therefore nega­tion has to be formed by adding a negative particle to the Verb since the Verb – as the expression of the action done by the actant in a sentence, bearing its main state­ment – needs to be negated. In this way “Tupac is a rapper.” would become “Tupac is not a rapper.”

If a verb-phrase does not already contain a form of the auxiliaries d o, be or have and consists of any other verb than do and have the auxiliary verb do needs to be added to negate it. Unlike in Middle English – where the following example would have been completely common – it is not possible to say that “*Tupac not fears death.” today. Only by adding a form of the auxiliary do the sentence becomes grammatically cor­rect: “Tupac does not fear death.”

A curious exception can be found in the negation of do as a full verb. Since “*Tupac does not his homework.” would on the one hand require a statement about what he is doing instead, it is on the other hand – and according to our point of investigation – not the grammatically correct negated form of “Tupac does his homework.”, which must be formed like this: “Tupac does not do his homework.”

Other possibilities to negate assertive sentences – next to the use of the negative particle not that only can stand in direct connection with verbs – are negative adjec­tives, such as no (“Tupac is no rapper”) which are mostly used to deny objects or negative pronouns like nobod y, nothing or nowhere like in “Nobody is a rapper.” that can substitute the subject of a sentence by its opposite, negative counterpart.

2.2 The Scope of Negation

Unfortunately – and against all claims of logicians – negation is not always unam­biguous, since the negation of A is not always B, standing for the complete opposite of A. If we follow the method of negation explained above, the negative opposite of “All the kids do like Tupac.” would be “All the kids do not like Tupac.”. On first sight and according to this fixed scheme the assertion seems to be right. But if we trans­late both sentences into German the logical mistake becomes clear: The first sen­tence would be “Alle Kinder mögen Tupac.” whereas the second one must be “Nicht alle Kinder mögen Tupac.” which is supposed to mean that there are many children who do not like him but their number does not constitute the whole number of chil­dren living in this world.

Nevertheless, there will be people who would understand the second sentence as an complete negation of the first one, which leads linguists like Wu to a discussion about the “Interpretation of the Scope of Negation”4 which is concerned with the “semantic influence which certain words have on neighboring parts of a sentence”5. Wu re­marks that this kind of investigation is highly necessary “because of its close connec­tion with the ordering of elements.”6

Further on he explains, that the position of a negative form “is generally significant in determining whatever follows is negated or not.”7 A perfect example for this can be found in the sentence “Some people never hear any rap music.” The first negative element in this sentence – ‘never‘ – can somehow be called the “anterior boundary” of the scope of negation, since it influences every following word. Hence, ‘any’ can be declared as having its position within this scope. This rule based on the syntactical order of a sentence leads to the fact, that assertive elements, such as ‘some’ can never change their position with negative elements like ‘any’. The example “* Any people never hear some rap music.” therefore is grammatically wrong.


1 Smitherman, Geneva: Talking That Talk. Language, Culture and Education in African America. Lon-don/New York: Routledge, 2000, p. XI.

2 Wu, Xuehui: On the Scope of Negation in English. In: Sino-US language teaching. Libertyville: David Publishing Company, 2005. Volume 2, No.9 (Serial No.21), pp. 53-56. p. 53.

3 ibid.

4 Wu, Xuehui: On the Scope of Negation in English. p. 53.

5 Quirk, Randoff, S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, and J. Svartvik: A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman, 1985. p. 85.

6 Wu, Xuehui: On the Scope of Negation in English. p. 53.

7 ibid.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Technische Universität Dresden – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
double negation African American Vernacular English AAVE negative concord




Titel: “I don’t want no double negation!”