Faster than the speed of negation

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Reader DM sends in a link for the for the misnegation archives — Evan Ackerman, "NASA: Warp drive is 'plausible and worth further investigation'", DVice 9/17/2012:

Warp drive, a staple of science-fiction, has just been deemed "plausible and worth further investigation" by the smart and apparently not crazy people over at NASA. And by way of further investigation, they've gone and started trying to create warp bubbles in the lab. […]

All you have to do to travel faster than light is to create a warp field with a ring of exotic matter, encasing your ship in a separate bubble of space, and then get the space to move faster than the speed of light. Technically, since it's the fabric of space that's moving, nothing in space itself is breaking the light speed limit. It's a loophole, yes, but it works. Or at least, we're not sure that it doesn't not work.

Talking about starships in the context "we're not sure that __" licenses pretty much any number of layers of negation: "We're not sure that it doesn't not fail to work", "We're not sure that it doesn't not fail to not work", etc., are presumably all true as well, for most values of "we".

But DM is pretty sure that it would have been OK to stop at

… but it works. Or at least, we're not sure that it doesn't work.

At least, he's not sure that it wouldn't have been OK not to not stop there.

We think.


  1. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 6:11 am

    I don't know exactly why, but the hed immediately dragged my mind off to Tonga and Flanders and Swann and their Philological Waltz.
    Is it too Whorfian to imagine that negation will be the most succinct and the fastest utterance in all languages?

    [(myl) Indeed.]

  2. NW said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 6:55 am

    In Malay/Indonesian the noun and verb negations are disyllabic bukan and tidak respectively – and the language does have numerous monosyllables. (Admittedly I have an idea the latter is tak more colloquially.)

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 7:38 am

    NW: Monosyllabic alternatives to tidak also include ndak and nggak. These vary regionally (nggak is common in Javanese-speaking areas, for instance). And bukan is shortened to kan when used as a tag question.

  4. Mr Punch said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 7:40 am

    The desire to put an emphasis on "not" seems to have led the writer astray. "Doesn't"is to squishy to take the stress. A will/won't construction would have been preferable.

  5. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 9:16 am


    Blogger DM's cited example of misnegation is so rife w/ "nots", that frankly just trying to discombobulate it and decipher if it is a positive, or negative statement, is tying my brain in 'knots'.(Groan)

    Seems like the common rule in these 'difficult' cases is that two negatives within the same sentence would cancel each other out to form a net positive statement. But does having yet a third negative element then automatically negate the net positive obtained by the negative-to-negative canceling one-another out? (As you may gather, I'm thoroughly confused.)

    In the aforementioned case, we have a "doesn't" (does not) sandwiched betwixt two "nots". The mind boggles. (At least MINE does.)

    As the late Desi Arnez would often say to his carrot-topped wife, and co-star, " Con yu 'splain yerself, Lucy?"

  6. L said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    > Is it too Whorfian to imagine that negation will be the most succinct
    > and the fastest utterance in all languages?

    The most succinct Worfian utterance is "pataQ."

  7. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    @ L said — French pataquès or Greenlandic pataq (= marrow)? Or something else more Whorfian?

  8. L said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    @Dan Lufkin – You will have to boldly go to another language altogether. It was a joke, wIj jup.

  9. Ross Presser said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    @Dan: Notice L changed from "Whorfian" to "Worfian". It was a pun involving the Star Trek:TNG character "Worf", who is a Klingon.

  10. Ross Presser said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    @L: Isn't Worf's own name more succinct than pataQ?

  11. L said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

    @Ross – it is certainly faster than pataQ (ref Richard H-B above) – and so are many Klingon monosyllables – but I think pataQ is succinctly Worfian.

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    @ everybody — English seem so lack an equivalent for Jetzt ist auch bei mir der Groschen gefallen.

  13. L said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

    @Dan – how does the sense of this differ from the straightforwards English gloss? The penny also drops in English, but perhaps the meaning differs?

  14. jaypatrick said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    I don't know that I can write a single word in Hebrew, but the method for "and" and negation is interesting if I understand it correctly (which I quite possibly don't). Just a line (vav?) on this or that side to imply negation versus addition, right?

    Well that's what I thought anyway, until trying to get a Google translation of Tom Jones famous double-negation (Not unusual…) The suggestion changed much more than I would have thought based on how I thought it worked.

    Could someone who speaks Hebrew possibly clarify?

  15. Paul said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    Jetzt ist auch bei mir der Groschen gefallen. In Portuguese "A ficha caiu." and in English "The light bulb came on."

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