The following joke is popular:

An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

But I wonder how common is the phenomenon. "yeah, right" isn't exactly double-positive, or at least it relies on intonation to convey the negative meaning. However, in Bulgarian "да, да" ("da, da" = "yes, yes") almost always means "no" (still, intonation plays a role).

What other languages exhibit this phenomenon?

Romanian also exhibits this feature. "Da, da", said in a certain way means "in no way" or "never".

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    Thats supposed to have been Sidney Morgenbesser. – Gaston Ümlaut Nov 8 '11 at 10:31
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    The version I always heard has the voice in the back of the room saying "Yeah yeah". – hippietrail Nov 8 '11 at 11:50
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    Also note that "nope, wrong" isn't a double negative, nor is "no, no", so the examples of "yeah, right" and "yes, yes" are not analogous syntactically to what we call "double negatives". – musicallinguist Nov 10 '11 at 0:24
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    One reason why I've never believed in this story as real is that I can't imagine many linguistics professors spouting the nonsense that "In English, a double negative forms a positive". – Colin Fine Nov 15 '11 at 14:33
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    double neg need not be positive in english, it could still be negative. it ain't nothing is an example. – giridhar Oct 29 '14 at 5:36

Yes, for example, it's the same in Italian "sì, sì" (= yes, yes), but it's ambiguous, it depends on intonation and not on the words themselves; this means that "double positive = negative" is wrong speaking about the words, but it works through other means. Changing intonation, that "sì, sì" can be absolutely positive as well. We also use a small variation in written language to substitute the intonation. We write "seh seh" or "se se"... More or less like the English slang variation "ye ye".

By the way, the "double positive" also works for French "c'est ça oui" or Spanish "sí sí", still, it's the intonation that plays an important role.

And going back to that... Intonation is a suprasegmental prosodic feature, along with pitch, stress, rhythm and they all belong to Prosody. (There might be other features but right now I don't remember them.)

The prosodic features of a "unity" in spoken language are called suprasegmental because they occur simultaneously to the utterance (segments). When you say words, forming a sentence, you include rhythm, intonation, stress, pitch and these two "categories" occur at the same time.

You don't utter words first and intonation later.

So, usually that's what makes that utterance have a positive or a negative meaning to the hearer.

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Ja, ja in Dutch and German can express disbelief too.

But I don't think ja, ja, да, да, yeah yeah, or yeah, right should really count; they do not express a double positive in the sense that one positive modifies the other, nor that both modify the same thing. They are just strong (because repeated) positives used ironically; they indicate disbelief—but is it an actual negation? You could use any locution to express a negative illocution:

Oh, I'm sure your grandmother won't be shocked if you announce that you're gay on Christmas Eve and kiss your girlfriend. She will no doubt be thrilled.

As an alternative, it is possible that ja, ja originates in a polite phrase that no-one believes any more (instead of a faded ironic phrase).

The fact that doubling a negative gives a positive is inherent in negations, because they invert whatever falls under their scope. Positives do not invert; they do not change what falls under their scope like that.

Then again, who is to say what counts? Depending on one's definition, it could be argued that there are two positives, and that the whole is negative. I suppose it is a trivial matter at any rate.

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There is a difference between semantics (literal or metaphorical meanings) of utterances and their pragmatics (the real world contextual implications).

Sarcasm (though possibly marked phonetically in English by change in prosody) is a phenomenon of pragmatics.

In English, two positives never make a negative, the ostensible semantic derivation is that it is emphasis by repetition or, with mathematical terminology, idempotent.

The surface meaning of 'yeah, right' or 'yeah, yeah' is assuredly positive. It is the situation that let's us see that the student is only implicitly contradicting the teacher.

As to other languages, I'm sure the same joke can be translated, but that doesn't make the utterance of two positives a negative there also. Your Bulgarian example may be a native ostensible definition for 'da, da', but it is not a well known phenomenon among the worlds languages (if truly at all) for it to be a true negative.

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It was Sidney Morgenbesser, and the linguist (actually, philosopher of language) he was responding to was J.L. Austin. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_Morgenbesser)

The importance of prosody to distinguish between literalness and sarcasm, which Alennano mentions, reminds me of my own bête noire: people who claim that "I could care less" is incorrect or nonsense. Steven Pinker writes about this very clearly, and concludes that "anyone who can't hear the difference has a tin ear."

This is actually very common in English -- American English, anyway. Think of the very common "TELL me about it!", which most definitely does not mean "tell me about it." I've always wondered if "I could care less", "tell me about it", "yeah, yeah", and phrases like that reflect a certain influence of Yiddish on American English, but I don't know.

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  • It was also Larry Horn, linguist at Yale. Question is who got there first, or who documented the claim first. Though it is most widely attributed to Morgenbesser. – user6726 Jul 7 at 15:30

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