The wilderness, this afternoon, is inside.
It started for me about twenty years ago when my son and I were at a local food store. Some five-year-old nearby called to his mother, “Hey Mama! Do we be needin’ potatoes?” To which his mother replied, “We ain’t be gottin’ no need for no potatoes.” The kid paused, looked up, and I said it sounded like they didn’t need them but that I hadn’t done the math yet.
It’s a big wide negative world we live in.
“No, I ain’t feeling bad.”
“I don’t be needin’ none of your crap.”
“Don’t be talkin’ no trash to no one.”
Double negatives not only returned to our vernacular after centuries away, it has become standard conversation. The bad grammar is not the problem, though that’s a problem. It is the vague undercurrent of negativity that surfaces in conversation and conduct. The “ain’t”s “no”s and “don’t”s run out front of people’s ramblings like offensive tackles, pushing and shoving as soon as the sentence comes off the tongue. It’s hard to avoid these grammatically-challenged people who apparently have subconsciously convinced themselves that nothing good is going to happen. Worse, something negative dominates most of their sentences, both verbal and proverbial. It’s positively shocking.
At a McDonald’s where two workers tried to fix a blender: “It don’t do nothing, do it?” At a restaurant when the hostess asked another customer where he’d like to sit: “It don’t make no difference.” At the counseling office on campus: “You mean he don’t need no developmental English?”
I had a student challenge me in class one day when I explained that how they grunted to each other in their own lives was their business, but in my classroom I expect proper language. He told me I was “arrogant and offensive” to tell students I won’t tolerate double and triple negatives, bad grammar, and defensive, resistant behavior. He agreed with my teaching methods about as much as his subjects and verbs agreed with each other.
First of all, I told him, I am definitely arrogant. Be positive about that one. I am arrogant about the abuse of our language; I am arrogant when how you talk on the streets spills into the classroom. This naturally leads me to offensive: I tell them plainly, “If anything I say offends you, you probably deserve it.”
The retort: “You think you’re better than us.”
Well, yeah. Not because my life is more valuable or more worthy absolutely not. In fact, some of the most valuable people I have known are illiterate village elders in West Africa or Mexico, migrant workers in Virginia, painters in the college halls. It’s because at any university in any collegiate situation, I try to get it right; I try and make it second nature not to belittle education and intelligence by bullying the language to a pulp. It’s insulting and childish.
A brief rant (because, no, I haven’t been ranting yet): If anyone outside our borders hears me expressing myself in one long stream of negatives, hears me ripping apart what I don’t understand, hears me make fun of what threatens me, and hears me laugh at what I can’t master, I know I’m showcasing for the world that we are the most pathetic, mindless, ignorant, illiterate jackasses on the planet. It reflects poorly on our secondary and primary education system and says to everyone simply that we are lazy. “Welcome to Moronica! Come on world, you know what da hell we meant.” Maybe we should come with subtitles.
Maybe I’m simply not a negative person—except now of course.
Truth is, I really couldn’t care less about the speech, though it is annoying. And I can easily attempt to administer editing drills that eliminate this moron-babble from their essays; what I can’t control is the rising tide of helplessness that’s the true problem. Why does anyone want the primary root idea of every thought and conversation to be a variation of “no?” What hope do people have if they go into every situation with two negatives already pulling their attitudes?
I really don’t know.
I asked my students what they hoped to accomplish after college, where they hoped to be. They hadn’t thought about it, which is normal, I suppose, but one student said, “I don’t want to think about it none. It don’t look too good out there.”
Sigh. No, it don’t.
Momentum is dead. These people feel like they’re running on ice. Was a time college students knew they could defeat anything that kept them from their goals. They believed in themselves. Their natural mental state bent toward something positive. No more. Now we’re instilled with fear—of failure, of attacks, of non-acceptance, or criticism. It is the Age of Fear, and the students have taken this time to heart. They’ve had a homeland defense attitude hammered into their psyche. They are taught to expect the worst, to anticipate failure, and to be prepared to pay the price. Negativity is not only acceptable, it is their survival gear.
A psychology lesson: Cognitive Therapy shows that when people are depressed, their thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity; they dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives. They don’t believe they can accomplish the simplest tasks. They don’t believe anyone is interested in helping them. Highest percentage of depressed Americans? College students. They are convinced where they’re at now is as good as it’s going to get. We used to only see it in body language. The closed arms, the blank stare toward the ground. Now, this vein of depression has adopted our own language to spread its vile verbiage. Am I over-generalizing here? I don’t think so. Maybe everyone’s depressed.
Everything, after all, is negative. Iraq and Ukraine and Afghanistan pervade the American mind in little more than a stream of body counts and car-bomb updates. Hurricanes slam our shores and send us reeling into “he should have” “she should have” volleys. The news has always been negative, but now the news is on all the time, from computers, watches, television, radio, and news sites. None of it is good and it ain’t getting no better. When I tell them they are better than their attitudes, that they can achieve every single one of their goals despite being trained for twelve years to simply do what they’re told and shut up, they laugh and say, “I ain’t got no time for none of that.”
It’s all about tone and they’re tone deaf.
They’re being fed all negative information through a wireless umbilical. And their identity is directly related to two modes: their actions and their speech. And what is the verdict? It ain’t good.
Okay, devil’s advocate here: In their defense, however, who really cares? After all, I do know what the students are saying, or trying to say, and I understand why they have slipped into such lazy, uneducated speech. I know the times they live in now demand this animal-like mindless reactionary talk in order to be accepted by other animal-like mindless friends. But these people graduated from a high school in the United States. They are what we define as “educated.” I’ve been told some of the double negatives and horrific grammar is more “dialect” than illiteracy. No. No no no.
A real comment: “Professor Kunzinger, I don’t need no developmental English. I didn’t do bad in high school.” This is what I’m talking about: Not, “I did well in high school,” but “I didn’t do bad.” They’re defining themselves by some degree of negative measure.
They don’t understand that command of the language is not about being taught some medieval construct carried over the pond by mostly snooty, old white upper-class Englishmen. Using the language as a sword with skill and finesse allows them to outwit anyone, any age, any income. It allows them to move without being noticed from group to group to take command, to lead, to sway the argument in their favor. It is the basis of all advancement, and it acts as the sharpest tool against a dull public out to take advantage of everyone.
Too many people today believe the art of communication is simply to be understood; it has nothing to do with being respected and taken seriously. “I should be accepted for who I am, not how I speak,” I’ve been told many times.
Listen: How you speak IS who you are. You may be brilliant but prove it for God’s sake. Stop hiding the Mensa tendencies. Let’s call it “Tonal Directed Conversation.” To these people, the sound of the words is more important than their meaning. Back to the store: “I ain’t be gotten no need for no potatoes,” in tone, is crystal clear. This woman is not buying the spuds. In fact, if I did do the math, it even comes out that way. She’s got three negatives floating through that amoebae sentence; it actually spins back toward “no” in the end. But that aside, the tone is clearer than the language. Knowing that, she might as well have been speaking Russian or Turkish. What difference does it make even if she merely grunted and scratched her armpit, so long as the tonal inference clearly shut out the potato-buying possibility? Everyone knew what she meant; it don’t make no difference. I figured that woman to have been in high school during the Reagan administration. But when Reagan told them to “Just say no,” this is so not what he meant. So now the question remains: Is it enough to know what someone means?
I’ve been teaching too long to know it wasn’t always like this. I don’t remember any (note: “any” not “no”) such verbal abuse years ago. Students could complete a coherent sentence without round-kicking the language. And when I tell my students this, they tell me I’m arrogant and offensive. Well, there they’ve got me.
The thing is, sometimes, I am also mistaken.
Here we go:
History compels me to admit maybe I don’t know nothing about what I’m saying. A little homework reveals how English ain’t so easy to master: Turns out most other languages thrive on the negative, and double negatives in fact were once wholly acceptable in English. Chaucer says of the Friar, “There was no man nowhere so virtuous”; and Shakespeare’s Viola says of her heart, “Nor never none/Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.” It’s all about emphasis. English remains, in fact, the only language that doesn’t allow double negatives. Why? Well, it simply ain’t logical. Grammarians since the Renaissance have objected to the double negative because these humanists who emerged during the age of reason demanded English conform to formal logic. They pointed out that two negatives destroy each other and make a positive. Since then, half a millennium later, this rule advocated by teachers of grammar and writing has become fundamental.
Nevertheless, all speakers of all educational backgrounds continue to use multiple negatives when they want to make a point, as when President Reagan taunted his political opponents by saying “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” That line uttered earlier by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer was the first spoken words of cinema. And the movies ain’t changed much since.
I don’t like being wrong, however, so I called a linguist I know in Boston.
“What is the problem with ‘ain’t’?” I asked.
“Well,” my colleague said, “it first appeared in English in 1778, evolving from an earlier form an’t, which arose almost a century earlier as a contraction of are not and am not. In fact, ain’t comes from the same era that introduced ‘don’t’ and ‘won’t.’” He took what sounded like a sip of tea. “Ain’t and some of these other contractions came under criticism in the 1700s for being inelegant and low-class, even though they had actually been used by upper-class speakers. But while don’t and won’t eventually became perfectly acceptable at all levels of speech and writing, ain’t does not come from any direct word sequence, making it a “vulgarism,” that is, a term used by the lower classes.”
“Oh,” I said. “But are not contractions of any form vulgar to a true linguist?”
“No, Bob,” he said. “I do not think so. Even a linguist can not avoid using them.”
I was not clear about this so he clarified. “Distaste for the word ‘ain’t’ is still alive, Bob. Its use is still regarded as a mark of ignorance.”
“But technically then,” I argued, “these students are not wrong, they are just living in the middle ages.”
“Well, I would not say that. I believe we must accept that vulgarisms have no place in our language. The worst of these vulgarisms are the double negative and ‘ain’t. It also thrusts their mentality toward depression. With language, however, we can contract hope and the future into a vulgarism we can all live with. Emphasis should be on the meaning.”
“So you are saying that without meaning in our words we are simply grunting with accents and scratching our stupidity.”
“Exactly, Robert. Well put,” he said.
I had to disagree. “Wait, though. You’re the linguist here, but maybe the nay-sayers are correct.”
“But they could not possibly…”
“Is it not possible that tone really is more important than meaning?”
“No! That simply does not make sense.”
“That seems a bit negative.”
After he hung up on me, I thought more about it. English has evolved for a thousand years, leaving behind meaning, gaining new meaning through time. We’ve dropped words completely, changed the definition of others. In America’s early days, the Irish, the English, the Italians and the Dutch beat the crap out of English. Webster came along and fearful of a country with multiple languages each with nearly unrelated dialects, homogenized us all to the English we banter about today. But why would be believe we’re done? The language is still evolving. Maybe we’re at the start of a neo-Renaissance. While Voltaire would have taken issue with the illogical taste of double negatives, Cervantes would have loved it. The language is changing, there is no doubt about that. How we speak today is a far cry from where we were, and a faint hint of what’s to come. Truth is, you ain’t seen nothing yet.