I recently found out that another paper of mine was accepted for a talk, at the Penn Linguistics Conference (PLC39).
This time, I'll be discussing a phenomenon in some registers of African American Vernacular English that I recently noticed, and have dubbed "eem negation." As with much of my research interest, this is a phenomenon that is not used by everyone, but which suggests a possible syntactic change which may or may not catch on. The basic idea is that Jespersen's Cycle is progressing for some speakers of AAVE, such that for some people, "eem" is available as a negative marker. If the last sentence sounded like gibberish to you, don't worry: the rest of this post will unpack it.
Jespersen's Cycle: two negatives makes one positive
Jespersen's Cycle is a phenomenon named for this handsome fellow:
First thing first: Jespersen's Cycle is about Negation. It's very important to start by noting that so-called double negation (e.g., "I don't owe nobody nothin'!") is not inherently wrong or bad, as some style guides, high school English teachers, or annoying relatives who correct your speech obnoxiously at family functions might have you believe. In English, multiple negation is stigmatized, but there is nothing inherent to the grammar of English that makes it bad, as evidenced in part by how many varieties of English use it. That is, what makes it 'bad' is that it is socially evaluated, not anything about the structure of the language. When people say "two negatives make a positive" they are both demonstrably wrong and also weirdly trying to force other people's speech to conform to half-baked mathematical assumptions. Two negatives make a positive when multiplying numbers, but there's no reason language shouldn't be, say additive instead of multiplicative (e.g., -1 + -1 = -2). Moreover, 'operations on real numbers' is a really bizarre way to think of language.
Instead, many dialects of English, and many other languages have what's called negative concord. That is, elements of a sentence should agree in negation -- meaning if one thing is negative, everything is. English has this ("It don't never mean nothing to no one nohow."), but so do French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and many, many other languages. That is, two negatives make one positive -- if by that you mean two negatives make a person certain you really meant it.
The Cycle that Jespersen observed was about how some languages change how they encode negatives over time. There are a few stages: in the first, you have one negative word. People, for whatever reason, choose to intensify the force of their sentence with another word (I didn't walk a step, I didn't drink a drop, etc.). Later, the intensifier is learned by children learning the language, and interpreted as obligatory. So then you have two words doing the same thing -- encoding negation. Then, the original word may become reanalyzed as optional - the word that was the intensifier becomes the word that 'means' negation. Finally, the original negation may disappear (and the new word takes its place as the sole marker of negation).
English has gone through this process, so that you get something like:
I ne say >> I ne say not >> I say not >> I do not say
For the moment, we'll ignore the can of worms that is the introduction of "do". Similarly, French has undergone this process. Negation used to be indicated with "ne" and is now indicated with "pas" (which used to mean "step" as in I don't walk a step). Many textbooks and fuddy-duddy teachers will claim that you should say something like "je ne dis pas" to mean "I don't say," however, in modern spoken French, the ne is just...not there.
Many, many languages have undergone or are undergoing such a process, including Greek (6 times!), number of varieties of Arabic, French, and English. I'm arguing that in one dialect of English, it may be happening again.
Here, I'm assuming a basic level of knowledge about AAVE -- that it exists, that it is a valid dialect, etc. (A quick primer can be found here).
So. There exists a word we'll call eem. If you search for it on Twitter, you'll notice a few things: it's used between 500 and 1,000 times a day. It shows up in the context of negation 98% of the time. It looks a lot like the word even. It can sometimes be spelled een.
My argument is that eem is not the same word as even. This is not a trivial thing to posit, since variations on even are common, and people often tweet how they speak. Moreover, that other 2% is made up almost entirely of people saying "eem = even."
Now, it's important to note that while I used Twitter to compile a lot of data quickly, it is by no means my only source of data -- it's a quick way to get a lot of data when you have the right kind of question. Other sources of data are sociolinguistic interviews, TV, movies, and music (there are 50-100 tokens in the extended cut of the song UOENO it (i.e., you don't eem know it), and Childish Gambino uses it in his song sweatpants, among others.).
Why claim that eem is not even? Well, for one, it only shows up as eem when there's negation, or some sort of counterfactual. That is, you can say:
"I don't eem know" or "he stopped before I eem noticed,"
...but you almost never see:
"eem Jamal was at the party"
...and you don't ever see:
*"2, 4, and 6 are all eem numbers." (the asterisk means 'ungrammatical').
In fact, in all instances I've seen of the second example ("eem Jamal was at the party") I haven't been convinced it was a native speaker of AAVE, and not someone who came across a "eem = even" tweet. That said, it's roughly ~1% of tweets that have that (almost exclusively young white women, for what what that's worth), and I have never come across it in speech.
So, eem is not just a phonological reduction of "even," (like sebm for "seven", etc.), although that's likely where it came from, nor is it just a new orthographic convention on Twitter.
Now for the cool part:
Not only do you get a lot of negation with eem, but you get a number of cool other things. Note, examples below have the original first, a rough gloss below that, and a more colloquial 'translation' below that.
(1) There are people who use eem and also then intensify their sentence with even, as in:
- "I ain't eem even feelin' it."
- I am NEG NEG even feeling it.
- 'I don't like it.'
(2) There are people who only negate with eem. I cannot overstate how cool this is. It is trivially easy to find example after example of tweets where the only negation is eem, as in:
- "Ya'll some troublemakers, but I eem mad tho."
- You PL some troublemakers, but I NEG mad, though.
- You all are some troublemakers, but I'm not mad, though.
- "I'm da shit, I eem care."
- I'm the shit, I NEG care
- 'I'm great, I don't care (about anything/anyone/etc.)'
- "Irony is: in most states, strippers can eem get naked! Dey literally dancin in bathing suits rackin da fck up..."
- Irony is: in most states, strippers can NEG get naked...
- Irony is: in most states, strippers can not get naked
(3) There are people who use eem as the only marker of negation, and then intensify it with even:
- "I'ma act like I eem even read that."
- I FUT act like I NEG even read that
- I am going to act like I didn't even read that.
- "You...eem even know it."
- you NEG even know it
- you don't even know it.
This all suggests that eem is not the same as 'even' (although it's very likely descendent from 'even'), and that eem is a marker of negation -- in some cases, the only one.
There are a number of interesting phonological processes around eem, but the discussion is pretty arcane and thorny, so I'm saving it for my conference talk. The basic gist is that eem can be pronounced in a number of ways, including een, and just a long, nasalized vowel. Because of the patterns in the audio examples I have of it (linguists: /m/ before labials, /n/ or /m/ before coronals, nasalized vowel before vowels, but also /m/, not engma, before velars), I argue that it is underlyingly eem.
The Big Question: Where's this going?
The thing about language change is that we often only know about it in hindsight. Given the tidal wave of data the Internet era has ushered in, we're now able to see trends like this in realtime -- but I don't know of a way to use this to predict the future. 25,000-30,000 tokens of eem per month on Twitter is simultaneously massive -- in fact, so massive it's too much to deal with, since we still need to read each hit to determine syntactic function, presence of other negation, etc. -- and weirdly way too little, given that it's probably much less than 1% of total use of negation in AAVE. Think about how many possible negative sentences could be uttered on any given day by ~40 million people, and 1,000 Tweets a day of eem is piddling. For the sake of comparison, there were more than 183,000 of "not" in the last hour alone. Moreover, the last time this kind of thing happened in English, it took centuries.
What this means, though, is that we are possibly able to track this kind of change in real time, for the first time in history. Either way, if it fizzles out and disappears or if it spreads to completion such that the standard way of negating a sentence becomes eem after a few hundred years, we stand to learn something about language change. I can eem hardly contain my excitement.
©Taylor Jones 2014
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