Same sound, opposite meaning

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon May 13 01:27:51 UTC 2002

At 6:29 PM -0400 5/12/02, sagehen wrote:
>  > their inability to appear outside a context
>>of negation, whether explicit or implied by a question.<
>looks like a good marker to me.  I'm not sure that it is exactly applicable
>to my sample question("do you think he did diddly [or squat] for us?")
>since, while it seems to anticipate a negative answer, doesn't entirely
>exclude it.  THis is a quibble, I admit.
>*Any* itself is a sort of chamaeleon (sp?) word, sometimes positive,
>sometimes privative.  Dialectal diferences in the use of *any more* have
>come up from time to time on the list.  *Anything* and *nothing* sometimes
>seem to be engaged in a perpetual do-se-do.

Yes, and as Mark says, these have been much discussed and described.
"Any" has two uses or senses (I claim they're related, so it's not
true homonymy), the negative polarity and the "free choice" items.
In about 40% of the languages surveyed in Martin Haspelmath's recent
compendium on indefinites, a similar duality exists.  As with the
squatitives, the result may well be an ambiguous sentence:

Can anybody play this game?
You can't do anything around here.

(intonation will disambiguate; the free choice use is heavily
stressed and may be further disambiguated with "just").  According to
some papers I've written, the ambiguity resides not in the lexical
item "any" but with the kind of scale it's associated with.  On other
accounts, the negative polarity "any" is an existential or indefinite
like "some", the free choice item a universal like "all" or "every",
which doesn't quite work for contexts like "Pick a card, any card" or
"Promise her anything but give her Arpege".

Now, as to squatitives, e.g. diddly-squat, evidently first attested
(acc to the OED) in a related form in Zora Neale Hurston's _Jonah's
Gourd Vine_ (1934):

She ain't never had nothin' --not even doodly-squat, and when she
gits uh chance tuh git holt uh sumpin de ole buzzard is gone on uh

The two uses of squatitives have been described in a few recent
papers, including a couple by Paul Postal, one in conjunction with
Haj Ross, and in my own "Flaubert Triggers, Squatitive Negation, and
Other Quirks of Grammar" (in J. Hoeksema et al., eds., _Perspectives
on Negation and Polarity Items, Benjamins, 2001).  I call them
licensed _squat_ (akin to "anything" and other polarity items
licensed by negation or semantically similar expressions) and
unlicensed _squat_ (akin to negative concord elements like Ital.
"niente" or Span. "nada", or of course "nothing" in most non-standard
dialects of English).

Another frequent squatitive is "(jack)shit", which we've also
discussed here under the form of "jack".


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