Friday, May 25, 2007

No, yes!

Whoops. Forgot I had a hobby picking apart the minutiae of other people's writing/speech for a minute there. I had to go to hospital last year to have a sense of humour operation, hence the no-posting-for-over-a-year-while-I-recovered thing.

But perhaps my brain isn't ready to take up the reins of pedantry yet; as I was writing that first sentence I completely forgot what this post was going to be about.

It's completely gone.

I'd just better go and retrace my steps.

... sat at desk... got coffee (not at desk, in kitchen)... sat at desk again... checked RSS feeds... checked emails... sent SMS to wife... read previous posts and laughed smugly to self...

Ah, that was it! Something I wrote in an email gave me the idea. Seriously, I was struggling there. Now I can fill in the 'title' part of this post.

That done, let's get on with it.

Hang on, I'm going to need more coffee.

Ah, that's better. Now, on with the post.

Have you ever been asked a question you weren't quite sure how to answer? And I don't mean in a "Daddy, what's that man doing to that lady?" kind of way. I'm talking about that wavering uncertainty you get when someone asks you a negative question and you're not sure whether to answer in the positive or the negative.

An example might be in order. Consider the question:
You're not going to eat that, are you?

How do you respond? There are a number of options. That number is four. Options are:
a) No (I'm not)
b) Yes (I am)
c) No (I am)
d) Yes (I'm not)

Of course, unless you specify the parenthetical intent of your reply, things can get rather ambiguous. It's a case of simple mathematics, or grammar; I'm not entirely sure.

We're all taught that two negatives make a positive. So, -2 x -3 =6. The functional grammar approach to this comes up with the same positive answer, to wit: Don't give me none of that cake expresses, when taken literally, an instruction to indeed give some cake to the speaker. If you give someone none of something, they get none. If you don't give them none, you're giving them some (or possibly all) of whatever it is you're serving up with a cuppa for elevenses.

So when someone says, "You don't want any, do you?" they're already putting out one negative. If you answer with "yes," a positive, you agree with the proposition and are effectively saying "yes, I don't want any".

If, however, you answer with a negative, you are in effect negating what has been proposed. In this case "No. I do want some". And this sounds a bit like you're saying "No, yes!".

English has long been referred to as a sort of melting pot of other languages. If English needs a word, we just take it from whatever language has the word we need and we use it. Off the top of my head, words like delicatessen, robot and café all fall into this category.

Why then, oh why, haven't we adopted a positive negative response from another language?

Let's take French, for instance (it being the only other language I've had any official training in). If someone were to ask you "N'aimez-vous pas de gateau?" (don't you like cake?) and you answered "oui", you would indeed be agreeing with them, that you don't like cake.

If you said "non" they'd probably think the same thing because you'd be saying "no, I don't like it".

(Actually, I don't know what they'd really think and I don't have one handy to ask. They would probably look at you funny though because you don't speak French. If you did, you'd know how to answer properly. For that matter, you'd know how to ask "don't you like cake?" a whole lot more idiomatically and eloquently than I do.)

The correct response if you did like cake would be to say "Si". Because, really... who doesn't like cake? What on earth's wrong with you?

Si is the French word for No, yes! It is a contradictory yes, one that corrects a negative assumption.

But we don't have a similar word in English, which leads to all sorts of confusion, especially for French people.

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