Negative inversion

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Wed Jan 21 16:43:34 UTC 2009

Concurring with Wilson (naturally), I'd say the construction is unremarkable in Southern white vernacular.


---- Original message ----
>Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2009 10:40:51 -0500
>From: Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
>Subject: Re: Negative inversion

>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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