no, not me, no way, no how!
It’s well known that negation is more frequent in spoken language than in writing. This is hardly surprising: after all, speech acts such as denials, refusals and rejections are typical of face-to-face interaction. It seems more surprising, though, to learn that in spoken English teenagers use negatives more frequently than adults do.
This is what Ignacio Palacios Martínez discovered in his analysis of the Corpus of London Teenage Language (COLT). He compared the use of negation in the teenage corpus with adult speech, mainly using the Diachronic Corpus of Present-Day Spoken English. Whereas the teenagers used about 33 negative words and structures in every 1000 words, the adults used only about 23 – a difference that was statistically significant.
The reason, Martínez suggests, lies at least in part in the nature of teenage language. About one third of the teenagers’ negatives occurred in imperatives, commands, orders, strong suggestions, directions, instructions and refusals. Martínez argues that this is because teenagers like to be direct, straightforward and spontaneous when they are talking to each other. The adults, by contrast, tended to use more roundabout expressions to carry out the same kinds of speech act, which resulted in a lower number of negatives overall. The teenagers were just as direct when expressing an opinion, and this also often led to their using negation. Adults were more inclined to hedge their opinions using indefinite or vague expressions.
A further characteristic of the teenagers’ speech was the use of several negatives in a string, which increased the force of the negation. The example in the first box shows a string of this kind.
The second box contains an example of another tendency found in the teenage corpus: this is the use of negatives as a kind of ritualized play, where one speaker immediately contradicts the other.
Although both adults and teenagers sometimes used fixed negative expressions to strengthen the negative force of what they were saying, the particular expressions differed. Adults tended to use not at all as a stronger term than no, whereas teenagers preferred no way. Teenagers also used idioms such as I couldn’t give a toss, and negative forms such as nope, nah and dunno. They also used innovative forms like uncool (meaning the opposite of being trendy or fashionable). Negative concord (e.g. I didn’t get no matches) was more frequent in the teenage corpus too, as was nonstandard never (e.g. Vernon never called for me yesterday), though Martinez points out that this may reflect the social class or regional origins of the speakers, which he could not take into account in his analyses. Social factors such as these may interact with the psychological development of adolescents, which accounts for their tendency to be direct and to experiment and play with language, but all these issues need further investigation.
Martínez, Ignacio M. Palacios (2011) The expression of negation in British Teenagers’ Language: A Preliminary Study. Journal of English Linguistics 39: 4-35.
This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire