Thursday, 29 June 2017

The logical Cantonese

Post number 3 from The Leopard! What good value that book was.

Now, here's a nice example of linguistic FACT being used to propagate linguistic SILLINESS. Kaja asks Harry Hole a negative question, You don't take milk, do you?. There follows the kind of misunderstanding we have all the bleeding time in English, because English is ambiguous in its answers here: he answers Yes, meaning 'yes, that's true, I don't take milk', but she thinks he means 'yes, I do take milk'. The fact that English can even do this is unusual and interesting and a worthy object of study, but we'll leave it aside for now (I think I've written about it before anyway).

Languages differ with respect to how they confirm the truth of a negative question. English is confused and can answer yes (= yes, that's true, I don't take milk) or no (= no, I don't take milk). Most languages pick one or the other. Cantonese, which Hole is familiar with because he's been living in Hong Kong, confirms the truth with yes (= yes, that's true, I don't take milk). Kaja says, when Harry uses this strategy, that he's "stopped using double negatives". I assume by this she means that he doesn't echo the negation in the proposition, answering No, I don't take milk. This isn't what we normally mean by a double negative, but it's the way Norwegian (the original language of the book and the characters' language) confirms the truth of a negative proposition.

It's not more logical to do it the Cantonese way, though. I'm not sure why it would be considered to be so, and in any case, languages are not logical. They're messy and arbitrary(ish) and when there's two options, as in this case, they're just one or the other without one being more logical. If there was a good reason for doing it one way, all languages would do it that way.

I got all this information from the brilliant SSWL database, by the way, where you can read more about this and other syntactic facts to your heart's content.

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