The Theory of Negativity

Forget the power of positive thinking. Every toddler knows the power of negative thinking. Studies show that “no” is one of the most common first words. But toddlers don’t need any study to know that a lusty “NO!” can get a rise out of a parent — making it their most popular word.

Psychologists at great universities will tell you the “terrible twos” is just an old myth. Don’t believe a word they say.

Jay L. Hoecker, M.D., writing for the Mayo Clinic, got it right: “The ­terrible twos [is] a normal stage in a toddler’s development characterized by mood changes, temper tantrums and use of the word ‘no.’”

It usually starts “when toddlers begin to struggle between their reliance on adults and their desire for independence. One minute a child might be clinging to mom or dad, and the next he or she is running in the opposite direction.”

But relax. This too shall pass. You’d better relax. You’re going to need all the rest you can get before your 2-year-old turns 4. That’s when the fun really starts. A friend of mine defined the syndrome: There are “the ‘terrible twos’ and the ‘farkerte (contrary) fours.”

I have formulated what I call Schiller’s Theory of Negativity:


Four equals the negativity of two squared.

Remember Nancy Reagan’s campaign “Just say No!”? Why do you think the slogan became so popular? I’ll tell you why. Because it was so familiar! She got the idea from her kids.

When my son Meilech was 18 months old, he jumped the gun and started saying, “No, no …”

Fighting fire with fire, I shot back, “No, no, no, no, no, no no.” (If that sounds monotonous, you haven’t heard the end of it.)

Meilech came back with, “No say no!”

“Why not?”

“Let me say no!”

But, that’s still conventional weaponry. According to Schiller’s Theory of Negativity, a 4-year-old can radiate nuclear negativity.

My nephew and niece came to visit last week with their 4-year-old son. Little Avrummy learns in a chassidishe school and his first language is Yiddish. Avrummy is as sweet as they come, kenahora. But he is 4. And Yiddish isn’t only chassidic. It can be positively (and negatively) acidic.

In Yiddish, double negatives are kosher. Yiddish speakers regularly use expressions like “Until I don’t see it, I don’t believe it.”

In Shakespeare’s English, double negatives were fair play. He had no problem writing, “I never was nor never will be false.”

But, as the OxfordWords blog reported, that changed after the 17th century. Academics like Anglican bishop Robert Lowth tried to impose mathematical precision on language. They “attempted to make English spelling and grammar more systematic, and relate the rules of language to those of logic. The Oxford English Dictionary records that in 1775, Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar stated: ‘Two Negatives in ­English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative.’”

Ever since then, English writers have been Lowth to use double negatives.

I have to admit I’ve been guilty of tweaking the prose of the linguirati. But if you think linguists are all stodgy academics with dotty i’s, and crossing schwas, it ain’t necessarily so.

I found a version of an old joke posted by Christine Santorini Biser and Bob Julia at the Department of Linguistics of the University of Pennsylvania:

“An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class. … ‘In English,’ he said, ‘a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.’

“A voice from the back of the room piped up, ‘Yeah, right.’”

In Yiddish, a double negative is for emphasis. So Avrummy, doesn’t know nothing from Lowth and his algebra of language. Shabbos afternoon, Avrummy’s parents were trying to get him to rest and he was being 4. I tried telling him, “If you don’t go rest, Tante (Aunt) Peshe won’t take you to the park.”

He answered, “Nisht Tante Peshe vet mech nisht nemen.” A literal translation would render that “Not Aunt Peshe will not take me.”

I replied, “Ver vet dich ya nisht nemen? — Who will yes not take you?”

A sly smile told me he got it.

But the real kicker came when his father asked him, “Vos zogst di? — What do you say?” That’s equivalent to “What’s doing?” But in Yiddish — and with a 4-year-old — there are no equivalencies.

Avrummy knew a straight line when he heard one and he went for it. When his father asked, “What do you say?” Avrummy answered:

Ich zog gurnisht fahr keinem nisht! — I don’t say nothing to nobody!” Negative to the third power.

Triple play. Side retired. Avrummy took the series!


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