The Positive Negative

Saying no with a smile

AS places in America start to look more alike, it's strange that we still talk as differently from one another as we do. Accents, of course, remain as strong as ever, but for that there is a Darwinian explanation: a person with a colorful accent is more attractive to the opposite sex. Accents are still associated with particular places, such as the South or New England or Minnesota, because speakers have acquired the way they talk from people who acquired it from people born there long ago. More puzzling are variations of inflection and usage that have a vaguer geography -- the way we pronounce the names of the days of the week, for example. In official speech, on TV and radio, in many cities, the days of the week are pronounced with a full final syllable: "Sun-day," "Mon-day," "Tues-day," and so forth. But in certain contexts people say the days of the week like this: "Sundi," "Mondi," "Tuesdi," "Wensdi,""Thursdi," "Frydi," with the final vowel contracted to a briskly spoken long e. Saturday is further contracted to "Seardi." Wandering lines on the map could indicate where "Monday" left off and "Mondi" began, such as in far suburban New York and points west, maybe. Social class or aspiration provides another clue; swells like Marylou Whitney and Brooke Astor generally do not say "I'll be comin' back on Seardi."
Overall, I would say that the contracted form is more common than not. Almost everyone in Michigan says "Seardi," maybe even Lee Iacocca. I used to do an imitation of a person standing in a Dairy Queen and jingling coins in his pants pocket and saying, "Let's have a chocolate sundi! Don't that sundi look good? Are you gonna have a sundi? I'm gonna have a sundi!" People with mid-American accents tend to say "sundi," while people on the edges usually don't. Maybe the pronunciation dates from when families got together for a big midday meal, called a dinner, every Sunday. "Sun-day dinner" is more awkward to say than "Sundi-dinner." And maybe the pronunciation spread to the other days of the week in inner parts of the country, where having Sunday dinner was more of a big deal. (I admit this is only a theory.)

My favorite American speech anomaly is a usage I call the Positive Negative. Again, its occurrence is vaguely geographic, but it also seems to fit with certain personality types all over. Normally the negative is expressed by the word "no." But for some people, and in some places, "no" is not part of the vocabulary. Instead speakers use an upbeat substitute that nevertheless conveys the same meaning -- hence the "Positive Negative." For example, if you go into a convenience store to buy some cat food and you can't find it on the shelves, and you ask the salesperson if they have any cat food, he or she will reply, cheerful as can be, "We sure don't!" The last word is spoken with a rising inflection, as if the expression were a positive one ending with the word "do." Sometimes the "sure" is accented with a regretful but still good-humored shake of the head. Indeed, "sure" is the key word in the phrase, all but submerging the negative meaning in a surge of straightforwardness and certainty. The Positive Negative may be adapted to any situation in which the answer is no: "Will you be back later?" "I sure won't!" "Can you give my car a jump?" "I sure can't!" "Are you the owner?" "I'm sure not!"

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