When a negative is a positive (it’s not just for middle school math any more!)

So I found more fun stuff in St Clair’s Hanis Coos notes with his work with Jim Buchanan.  He wrote down a series of sentences with minor variations along the lines of “If you go home, probably you will find him there; if you go home, probably you will find him there” and so one and so forth.  I noticed a small detail buried in these sentences that struck me as quite odd.  In the sentences with ‘probably’ – yikwantl – the Coos uses a negative particle for “no, not”, even though the negative does not appear in the English translation.  Here is a pair of contrasting examples:

yantl no piipii, yikwantl nii hi’nii kitluuts=”If I go home, probably (I guess) I’ll find him there.” (per St Clair’s translation).  Literal translation:  If-will I go.home, perhaps-will I-not there find-him.  Perhaps if we were to make another pass at translating into vernacular English, we’d say, ‘If I go home, perhaps will I not find him there?’  Not a common phrasing in contemporary American English, but the kind of phrasing one might find in a 19th century novel.

yantl no piipii, hi’nii hantl nikitluuts=”If I go home, I will find him there”.  (literally:  if-will I go.home, there will I.find.him)  So this time, to yikwantl (probably, I guess, future) there is no negative ‘no, not’.

After finding these sentences I went through Frachtenberg’s grammar, and this is what he had to say about it.  The basic “probably” word is kw or yikwa (it combines with the future particle hantl to make probably-I guess-in future) “…has a dubitative character.  It expresses the possibility of a certain action taking or having taken place, and at the same time doubts the certainty of its occurrence.”  So really, yikwa and yikwantl, don’t mean just ‘probably’ but also imply doubt, that an event is unlikely to happen.  It is a bit of a downer, a kind of Eeyore word, if you will.  And so, using this ‘probably’ word along with words meaning ‘no’ and ‘not’ seem to say well, maybe this thing I am speaking of will happen.  Two negatives to make a positive, which seems kind of weird.  But both language and mathematics are often a bit weird, if you look closely enough.



About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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