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Although I don’t usually talk about medieval times, Monday’s posts are called Medieval Mondays, because I like alliteration. In these posts, I look at the history of the English language.

Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous

(“There never was no man nowhere so virtuous”)

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto no maner wight

(“He never yet no vileness didn’t say / In all his life to no manner of man”)

Chaucer is heralded as being one of the great historical writers – in fact, he’s one of the only still read today.

So how does he write using double negative and escape the wrath of people such as myself?

Well, it’s all down to this handsome man:

Bishop Robert Lowth with all his rugged good looks

Robert Lowth.

In the eighteenth century, or The Age of Reason (capitalisation necessary), English-speaking people were far too self-conscious about the way they were perceived; much of which was based on the way they spoke, due to a number of factors, including the rising numbers of Middle classes. Middle classes wanted to seem Upper class, and Working classes wanted to seem Middle Class. They all wanted to speak proper properly.

Robert Lowth came along. He was multilingual, a professor of poetry and Oxford, and a bishop. His Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1761, was so popular that 22 editions were published.

Lowth and other grammarians wanted to codify the English language. Taking advantage of the linguistically conscious Middle classes who cared enough to buy their books, they created/invented/made up new rules, on a whim.

According to Lowth, using a preposition at the end of a sentence was now wrong.

Splitting an infinitive? Now wrong.

And, of course, our favourite double negative. Double negatives, in Chaucer’s time, were used for emphasis, but Lowth decided that they made a negative – basing this rule on maths and science. Of course, it makes sense; “I didn’t not do it” means “I did it”, if you work it out. However, it didn’t always. It used to mean “I really didn’t do it”.

Of course, this doesn’t give you an excuse to go throwing your double negatives around. It’s been several hundred years, and our language has become used to the fact that a double negatives make a positive. What I mean is, you’ll just sound stupid.

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