Negative inversion

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 21 15:40:51 UTC 2009

Quoting my mother (AB, Wiley College, Marshall, TX; MPsSW, Washington
University in Saint Louis):

"She's so mean and evil that _can't anybody_ stay with her."

This is so ordinary among middle-class black speakers that I thought
that it was standard English until I was in my thirties. That is, for
me, _can't nobody_ et sim. would have been "non-standard" because of
the double negative, but _can't anybody_ et sim. was fully "standard"
and used by tout le monde, irrespective of race, creed, color, place
of national origin, or sexual orientation. I was under the impression
that this was the case until Haj Ross stated that it was a feature of
BE in a lecture in a "baby syntax" class at M.I.T., ca.1972.

Needless to say, it's a feature of my own speech, except when I'm
among white people. Until I heard Haj specify the construction as BE,
I didn't make that exception. Before then, I was so certain of the
universality of the construction that I had never noticed that white
people didn't use it, even those from the South, not that I've had
occasion to chat casually with many of the latter. Back in the
'Seventies, I asked a native of Tennessee and a native of Alabama,
both grad students in linguistics, about the use of this construction
and neither was familiar with it.The "Blue-Collar Comedy" guys are the
only white people that I've ever heard use any form of the
construction. Even they sometimes seem to to be putting on in order to
sound as country as possible, since the only one who uses it with any
consistency is Larry the Cable Guy.

As it happens, I've never read anything by Faulkner, so I have no
knowledge of his style. However, since he was a home boy - "one of
those good folk who come from home," as Jimmy Coe phrased it - it's
probably not the case that he had never heard the construction before
and simply happened to make it up. But, of course, you never know.

OTOH, that he would put it into the mouth of someone in Greater Boston
...  I don't have anything to say about that. I'd have to read the
book and even then I might have no useful comment WRT Faulkner's use
of the construction.


All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
-Mark Twain

On Tue, Jan 20, 2009 at 4:33 PM, Matthew Gordon <gordonmj at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Matthew Gordon <gordonmj at MISSOURI.EDU>
> Subject:      Negative inversion
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I came across a striking example of negative inversion in Faulkner's The
> Sound and the Fury. It occurs in the second part ("June Second, 1910") and
> is spoken by a boy the narrator encounters on the street in
> Cambridge/Boston. The narrator, referring to a fish, says, "I hope you have
> good luck. Only dont catch that old fellow down there. He deserves to be let
> alone."
> And the reply is: "Cant anybody catch that fish."
> There appears to be negative inversion without negative concord/multiple
> negation. I would have expected "Cant nobody catch that fish" = Std. "Nobody
> can catch that fish." Elsewhere some of the boy's companions use mult.
> negation (e.g. "We wont catch none nowhere if we dont go on"), and in an
> earlier part of the book there's a negative inversion with multiple negation
> ("Cant nobody see down here from the house, noways").
> Has anyone encountered something like this (cant anybody) in the wild? I
> wondering whether this is just a Faulknerian creation.
> I suppose it's possible that I've got the wrong interpretation of the
> meaning. Perhaps it's "That fish can't be caught by just anyone". It's not
> clear from the context.
> -Matt Gordon
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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