Yesterday I watched a movie with Jason Statham and it made me think about Italian double negatives. Is Italy a country in need of good grammar?
- Girl: I didn’t do nothing!
- Jason: It’s I didn’t do anything. “Didn’t do nothing” is a double negative, infers the positive. The grammar in this country is terrible.
This film is not a masterpiece, but the line was brilliant.
I thought about the structure of the sentence “I didn’t do nothing”, wrong in English but right in Italian (non ho fatto niente), and about all the students who pointed that out during my lessons. Isn’t that a double negative? Why Italians use sentences like “non c’è nessuno” and “non ho mangiato niente”?
The assumption that a double negation automatically “infers the positive” belongs to mathematics and logic, not to language. “I didn’t say I don’t love you” doesn’t mean “I said I love you”.
But the question here is why in Italian we use the redundant NON in the same sentence with NESSUNO, MAI, NIENTE, NULLA (nobody, never, nothing), which already are negations. The answer is because in vulgar Latin, becoming modern Italian, we already had double negatives as negative sentences. The answer is therefore “because”.
If you are particularly fastidious about grammar, we can liquidate the matter saying that the adverb NON is “pleonastic”. For simple people like me, it means that NON in sentences like non ho fatto niente is just an addition to reinforce the negation. Be careful though. It doesn’t mean you can say ho fatto niente to say I did nothing. We must add NON to build a correct sentence in Italian.
Some examples. Try to translate the following sentences:
Ho fame. Non ho mangiato niente.
Luca è caduto ma non si è fatto niente.
Ho telefonato a casa ma non ha risposto nessuno
Non avete mai mangiato il sushi?
Non sento nulla, alza il volume della tivù per favore.
Se non studi mai, non imparerai niente.
The last one is a double-double negative, but it’s perfectly correct. Thank god, Jason, grammar in this country is just fine.
I hope this short lesson about Italian double negatives was helpful. A presto!