Don’t tell me no lies

For the weekend – and maybe a day or two after – I’ll fill this space with another piece from Songs of Love and Grammar (still available on or for just $12), about double negatives and negative concord. A friend of mine says he’s thinking of setting this to music. I’ll let you know if he does.

Don’t tell me no lies

I met a little lady from way down south
and I thought she was kinda sweet.
She had a tasty tongue in a cowgirl mouth
that said things you’d wanna repeat.

“I don’t never go for that city stuff –
I like my drinks and men smooth and hard.”
And I said, “Won’t you leave me when you’ve had enough?”
And she said, handing back my credit card,

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

We had a little drink and we had a little dance
and we painted lots of red on the town,
and pretty soon we had ourselves a fine romance
and I took her out shopping for a gown.

Oh, I bought her a ring, and I bought her a home,
and I got her set up nice and neat.
But sometimes I’d worry she would use me and roam,
and whenever I did, she’d repeat,

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

So now why am I sittin’ with my head hangin’ low
with nothin’ left, not even pride,
wonderin’ where my sweetheart and my money did go
and how I got took for a ride?

My gal was a master of verbal predation,
a lawyer who took her reward –
she tripped up my ears with double negation
that I thought was negative concord:

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

The double negative is one thing the prescriptivists won on. English had negative concord for a long time – if you negate one part of a phrase, you negate them all for consistency, just as in some languages you make the adjective feminine if the noun is, for instance. Romance languages still use negative concord. But by the 19th century it was pretty much vanquished in English by appeal to “logic” (rather than appeal to Latin, which actually uses negative concord). And yet in many “nonstandard” versions of English it’s still used – and understood. After all, language doesn’t actually work like math. But the “standard” rules – put in place by the legal class, in fact – are what prevail in law.

Oh, and all those -in’ endings? That’s another thing prescriptivists won on. By the 18th century, the –ing suffix had come to be pronounced as “-in” by everyone (because the tongue is drawn forward by the vowel); rhymes by English poets of the time don’t work with the “ing” version. But the spelling hadn’t changed, and so it was insisted by those who taught the stuff that the ending should be pronounced as written. Nonetheless, while the formal standard has changed, the old way hasn’t been eradicated. By the way, saying “-in” isn’t actually dropping the g; there is no g to drop (ng is just how we write the sound – do you heard a “g” in there? only in words like finger). It’s just fronting the consonant – from the velum (at the back of the mouth) to the alveolar ridge (near the front).

4 responses to “Don’t tell me no lies

  1. Hi sesquiotic. I’m afraid that the final paragraphs are like serial double negatives; almost impossible for me to decipher. My failing no doubt but your explanation went right over my head. If there can be a further exposition, I would enjoy it; particularly regarding “negative concord.”

    • The thing is this: You know that if someone says “I don’t want none of your money,” you assume they mean “I don’t want any of your money” but are using a double negative to mean a single negative; but sticklers will tell you that technically “I don’t want none of your money” means “I do want some of your money.” Which is what the woman in this poem really means. “Negative concord” is what languages like Italian do and English used to: you don’t use just one negative, you make negatives go with negatives, so you say “I don’t want nothing” because the sentence is negative and so you use all negative words. Many people do it all the time colloquially and it’s thought of as “bad” English, but we do understand it. “Concord” here just means “agreement.”

  2. Pingback: The Dangers of Falling For A Linguist | All Things Linguistic

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