What I Liken't

This probably goes into a category in between weird words and English grammar contradictions, among the things that occasionally annoy me about English compared with the other languages I know. This post is all about negation: giving a sentence the opposite or negative meaning, preferably with a few small changes. Let's start with the Latin (it's good to start with the Latin).

Caesar aedificare copiis pontem facebat

"Caesar caused the troops to build a bridge"

But suppose he intended to do so, but at the last minute was prevented? The simple addition of non in the right place, and the sense is inverted:

Caesar aedificare copiis pontem non facebat

 "Caesar did not cause the troops to build a bridge"

(Part of the fun of Latin is that you can move the non and change the meaning:  Caesar aedificare copiis non pontem facebat — "Caesar caused the troops to build something, but not a bridge" !)

Same again in French:

Caesar fit construire un pont par les soldats

is negated;

Caesar ne fit pas construire un pont par les soldats

and indeed, a peculiarity of the literary register in French means that with the verbs faire and être, the pas can be omitted:

Caesar ne fit construire un pont par les soldats

In modern spoken French, the ne is often omitted in the present tense (though this will lose you marks in exams and sounds awful):

Caesar fait pas construire un pont par les soldats

Other romance languages are much the same, but, so is German (you just put nicht in the appropriate spot) and Russian (you do the same with не ('nye')).

English, on the other hand, just has to be different. So much so that I actively avoid using negative constructions in English, because with most verbs, NEGATION REQUIRES AN AUXILIARY:

 "Caesar did not cause the troops to build a bridge"

Instead of conjugating to cause, we put it back in the bare infinitive and conjugate the verb to do not!

The only verbs we negate in a reasonable way are to do, to have, to can* and to be. All the rest, we don't negate reasonably (see?).

In a few idioms, we have preserved the more sensible negation of recent but now archaic English:

She loves me, 
She loves me not.


Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country

Personally I think this construction more elegant and more pleasing to both eye and ear, and I would much like to see the same convention that gives us don't, can't and won't extended to other verbs (hence the title of this post). Perhaps in future posts I'll use that form. Unless I decide I liken't it after all.

* technically can has no infinitive in English, but in other, more sensible languages, it does, so linguists sometimes use "to can" as a convenience in discussions.


Becca Mills said...

Great post, Harry. But really, what's not to love about English's oddity? Isn't it just part of the language's charm? We're willfully quirky.

Unknown said...

I probably wouldn't be bothered by this oddity if I weren't bilingual AND teaching my son Latin. As it is, the fact that I am bothered shows that I am aware of this sort of nonsense, which I hope is an asset in an editor.