What determines class? I would say it’s the language. If you have to summon every ounce of your will power not to wince when someone uses a subjunctive wrongly, you are probably middle class.
What about double negatives?
The litotes is of course a figure of speech, unique, I think, to English, whereby an affirmative is expressed using a negative. When this figure of speech is employed while speaking or writing, one uses double negatives. Two wrongs might not make a right, but, in figurative speech, two negatives, one succeeding the other, make a positive. Or do they?
Why would one want to use double negatives to express a positive? Why not express the affirmative with the boldness of a teenager parading lardy mid-riff and traumatised naval? Why be mealy-mouthed when you want to express something positive?
The litotes use the double negatives as understatements, not infrequently, in an ironic manner. Many a times, though, you feel that the double negatives are employed in a way that makes the responses ambiguous at best. What does the answer “Not too bad” to the question “How are you?” convey? Does it mean that the person is feeling “good”? Or does it mean that the person is feeling bad, but not to a great degree, as suggested by the adverb “too”? Are there degrees of badness, then, from moderately tolerable to immoderately tolerable (also known as intolerable)? The answer is often delivered with a smile. What does that mean? Is the person phlegmatically surviving whatever badness that is afflicting him with quiet fortitude, showing commendable self-restraint in the face of great adversity, which would send many others to the Samaritans? It probably reveals nothing more than an enchanting ignorance of figurative speech. In other words, it is something which the people say, without giving it much thought, comfortable in the knowledge that the person asking the question isn’t really bothered about the state of your wellbeing and is making the inquiry as a nicety. That’s what polite, middle-class people do when they meet other nice, middle-class people.
I am currently reading Rebecca Gowers’s excellent Horrible Words—A Guide to the Misuse of English, in which Ms Gowers feels obliged to devote an entire chapter to the double negatives. In it I came across an interesting example of double negative. The sentence is quoted from an article which appeared in the Guardian (why does this not surprise me?) and goes like this: Few doubt that certain views pervade, and practices persists, but even fewer will own up to holding or following them. The sentence leaves you nodding your head in admiration at the linguistic dexterity of the author.
Often, the double negatives are used, not as understatements but, to emphasise a point, like Al Johnson, who announced in the Jazz Singer You ain’t heard nothing yet, folks. This, I think, is not a standard use of the double negative. Rebecca Gowers gives another example; of Louis Armstrong, who declared: The music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. What was Armstrong trying to convey when he said ain’t worth nothing? If you use the rule of litotes, you might conclude that ain’t worth nothing means worth everything. But Armstrong follows it with if you can’t lay it on the public (that’s the third negative in the sentence). So, using the litotes mathematics, you will conclude that Armstrong was saying that music is worth everything if you can’t lay it on the public. But that does not make much sense either, because you get the feeling that what Armstrong is saying is the opposite of what you might take him to be saying (if you apply the standard rule of litotes to the sentence): The music ain’t worth anything if you can’t lay it on the public. Does this imply that Armstrong was simultaneously using another figure of speech, irony, conveying the exact opposite of what he was saying? The same goes for Al Johnson’s declaration in the Jazz Singer. What Johnson is telling the audience is that the folks haven’t heard anything, yet when he says You ain’t heard nothing yet. Armstrong, arguably (or should it be unarguably?), was a great jazz singer; but was the Pops’s grasp on the figures of speech as firm as his grasp on the trumpet? I don’t know. Armstrong was perhaps using the double negatives in an unorthodox manner to emphasize a point. Or, maybe, he didn’t know what he was talking about. Or, he did know what he wanted to say, and chose to say it, out of ignorance of the litotes, in a manner that Simon Heffer, in Simply English, described as vulgar. Or, Armstrong didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about what Rebecca Gowers charmingly refers to as “the gripers” thought about the misuse of English, and deliberately used the double negative in this manner to express his contempt for the purists and their dogmas. Or, Armstrong said what he said without giving much thought to what he was saying; it was a slip of the tongue. We shall never know. Armstrong died in 1971 and is not available, now, to explain.
This kind of use of double negatives, in a non-standard manner, usually for emphasis, is more often heard or read, in my experience, in American English. This was noticed and commented upon by Henry Mencken, the great American satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English, in his book The American Language. Mencken, who once said he was inspired by the “argot” of the streets of Baltimore, considered phrases such as I don’t see nobody, or I couldn’t hardly walk as examples of vulgar American English. (Mencken died in 1956. Had he lived longer, I would not have thought he would have been impressed by the lyrics of some of the iconic songs that came out in the subsequent decades: I can’t get no satisfaction (Rolling Stones) or I don’t need no education (Pink Floyd)).
There are examples of double negatives using pre-fixes such as ‘ir’, ‘in’, ‘non’, ‘un’. We often read phrases such as ‘not insignificant’ or ‘not uncommon’, which do not jar our (at least my) sensibilities, although I think it is neither necessary nor particularly stylistic. They are what I consider to be straightforward uses of litotes to express affirmatives. You might wonder whether such use isn’t (or should it be ‘is’?) pretentious. Occasionally, however, you come across words, which throw you. Take irregardless, which, when it is used, appears to be used in place of the conventional ‘regardless’, and conveys the same meaning. Kingsley Amis, in his superb The King’s English (reviewed on this blog), railed against irregardless and described it as a kind of illiteracy. According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, ‘irreagrdless’ was popularised in American dialect in the early twentieth century, and spread over other parts of English speaking world. The dictionary informs that the word is not widely accepted and advises to use ‘regardless’ instead. For Rebecca Gowers, Amis, like Heffer, is a griper (she seems to use this word to imply that Amis and Heffer are pedants and fussbudgets, which is ironic, I thought, from an author who takes seventeen pages to discuss the difference between slipslops and malapropisms in her highly readable Horrible Words—A Guide to the Misuse of English). Gowers attempts to put forth her view, which, insofar as I can see, is ‘there is no need, really, to hyperventilate about these things, which have been going on for centuries’ by giving convincing examples which show that the words and word-usages scorned by the likes of Amis and Heffer have been in usage for centuries (though not frequent), and not, as the "gripers" imply, relatively recent addition to the lexicon, say in the twentieth century, by the philistine. 'Brothel', for example, once meant prostitute, and not its current meaning (although, regarding ‘irregardless’, Gowers can’t go further back in time than 1865, and the example she comes up with is its American usage).
It seems to me that whether you will consider the use of a word or a phrase or an idiom or a figure of speech as vulgar or cultured will often depend on what appears right to your ears. It probably also depends on what you think is the correct use of the word. I will always baulk at using ‘irregardless’ (‘regardless’ would do very nicely, thank you), but the word does exist, though not so far in wide usage. It is also true that a catachresis, once it begins to be used in spoken and written language regularly, is no longer a catachresis (a point Rebecca Gowers makes convincingly).
Coming back to double negatives, I think I shall carry on using them (or, as Bart Simpson declared, “I won’t use no double negatives”) to express an affirmative in a figurative manner, and not to emphasize a point, the way many Americans do. Use of multiple negatives in a sentence is confusing, if not vulgar, and is to be desisted.