John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford). The Power of Babel (2003). pp. 226-227.

I don't know how to replicate the format on the para. on p. 227 on Old English.

enter image description here

I didn't spot the red underline overhead before, but I now agree with McWhorter that it feels illogical to say "what one didn't see was anything", to express nothing as anything or something, or "that one saw nothing".

But why have this illogical weirdness persisted? Why have humans acclimated to this illogical syntax, rather than a more logical alternative?


I think McWhorter is exaggerating his point a bit to try to make English speakers who are used to prescription against "double negatives" rethink their possible prejudices. As far as I know, the use of a word like "anything" in a negative clause is not actually that unusual, and I don't think it makes any more sense to think of it as "illogical" than it does to think of negative concord as illogical.

According to "On the typology of negative concord", by Johan van der Auwera & Lauren Van Alsenoy, negation constructions like "I saw nothing" (with a special negative word, like the negative pronoun "nothing", but not the usual clause negator) are actually more unusual than negative constructions like "I didn't see anything" (with the usual clause negator--the negative word "don't"--and a negative polarity indefinite word).

A wide variety of languages apparently make use of "negative polarity" indefinite words or neutral indefinite words in negative contexts.

| improve this answer | |
  • I was going to say something intemperate about McWhorter's glibness; thank you for being more reasoned than I would. The very notion of calling any language illogical, whether plebeian or patrician, is inane. If you can't map a language onto your model of logic, Change your mapping. – Nick Nicholas Jul 28 '18 at 2:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.