“You don’t know nothin’ bout no Earth, Wind, and Fire”: Reexamining negative concord and definiteness in African American English

Christopher Hall, Taylor Jones


AAE is described as exhibiting negative concord, similar to other varieties of English, in which negation licenses c-commanded n-words as well as Negative Polarity Items (NPIs). Crucially, these are thought to be licensed only when the noun phrase they modify is indefinite. Here, our object of study is an under-described phenomenon in AAE: under certain discourse conditions, AAE licenses no before a definite noun phrase (as in “You don't know nothin’ bout no Kendrick Lamar”). We argue that this phenomenon should not be situated in the syntax (as a previously unattested definite n-word), but rather in pragmatics, as speakers “demote” definite NPs to indefinite as part of a discourse strategy of signaling disagreement with, and rejection of, listener assumptions. This has implications for existing analyses of AAE negation, and for cross-dialect comprehension, camouflage constructions, and linguistic ideologies and discrimination. We also revisit existing canonical examples of AAE negation in light of this new analysis (eg., “it ain't no cat can't get in no coop” in Labov 1972).


African American English; AAE; negation; negative concord; definiteness; pragmatics

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v7i1.5271

Copyright (c) 2022 Christopher Hall, Taylor Jones

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