A Double of Negatives

Pretty much every language in the world uses double negatives, with no hint of semantic trouble, yet they typically can’t be tolerated in our strict systems of formal mechanisms.

Is that a problem with humans and humanity?

Or is it a problem with those strict formalisms?


As a human myself, I’m not having none of it.

I generally prefer loose formalisms.

That’s partly because I’m lazy. But mostly it’s because if we try to be strictly deterministic, we’ll quickly run out of forms to use. Or space to use them in. Or time.

Signs, keys, tokens, operators, symbols – if you need infinite consistency and uniqueness, you probably won’t have enough for the job.


From The Information, by James Gleick:

Generally, the breaking down of information barriers leads to conflict over names and naming rights. Impossible as it seems, the modern world is running out of names. The roster of possibilities seems infinite, but the demand is even greater.


Take the concept of operator overloading, for example, which needs to be carefully and meticulously implemented in any strict formalism. In language, though? It happens on the fly, all the time.

In the spoken language of my office, for a random example, “Cap G” can mean three different things:

  • Cap Gemini, a contractor/vendor we work with.
    • “Let’s work with Cap G on that.”
  • CAP-G, the acronym of a form with an ID number referenced when hiring individual contractors (from any vendor)
    • “What’s their CAP-G number?”
  • C.A. Product Group
    • “How are we funding that? Is it a CAPG project?”

So it’s perfectly meaningful to ask “Can you give me the CAP-G number for that Cap G contractor working on the CAPG project in your feature portfolio?”


Irrelevant side note, John Adams used the phrases “you is” and “you was” all the time.

So much for “perfect English.”

Of course, that didn’t stop management at my first job from telling half my co-workers they needed to… talk different.

In the name of being more “professional.”

You know which half they were talking to.

Doesn’t even need to be said.

Funny how enforcing strict formalisms is so often a pretext for enforcing social hierarchies.

Must be some kind of coincidence.

Source: John McWhorter, The Story of Human Language, Lecture 19

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