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!"

My local bakery, which could be called the Sure Don't Bakery after its employees' affection for the phrase, has even managed to express the Positive Negative in a one-word sign. When the bakery is open, a large sign on the door says YEP! When it's closed, a sign of equal size says NOPE! And although if I pull into the parking lot and see that NOPE!, the net effect is negative (I've gone to the trouble of turning in here, and I'm not going to get my sunflower bread), still I feel a strange warmth very unlike the bleak, empty, hot-dog-wrapper-blowing-along-the-deserted-boardwalk feeling conveyed by the simple and more common non-Positive Negative word "Closed." It's as if we were such an optimistic people that everything we said had to be expressed by "Yes" -- even "No." In the state where I live -- a western state, with big skies and sprawling subdivisions -- on certain roads under certain conditions there is no speed limit. The signs on those roads don't come out and say that, however. They post a daytime limit for trucks and a nighttime limit for everybody, and leave the driver to figure out the rest. And on roadside billboards advertising motels sometimes a neon YES lets travelers know that rooms are available -- a convenience, except when YES is not illuminated, and the traveler notices only the billboard and exits the highway and goes to the motel and asks if they have any rooms, and the desk clerk happily replies, "We sure don't!"

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I once took a course from the great Shakespearean scholar Harry Levin, who said "uh" a lot when he lectured: "We see the uh-uh-uh-uh-uh frequent use of lunar imagery in uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh A Midsummer Night's Dream."A friend and I always sat together and counted the "uhs" with vertical strokes bundled by diagonal strokes into bunches of five. At the end of each class we compared our totals, which were usually pretty close. Iremembered not one sensible word Levin said, and of course I did not do well on the exam. Twenty years later I happened across an essay by Levin on Coriolanus and was surprised at how interesting and coherent it was. That's the problem -- certain weirdnesses of speech can obsess me so that I hear nothing else. Now, with "sure don't"often I'm listening for it even before it comes out of the person's mouth. Some places where I know I'll never hear it -- in an Indian restaurant, in Mexico City, at a gallery opening in Soho -- I can relax. But in other, hard-to-predict situations -- maybe in a shoe store just down the street from the gallery, maybe in a mall a thousand miles west -- I sense its presence, and I go on the alert like a "sure don't" connoisseur. A few days ago a woman in front of me in line at the liquor store asked the sales clerk if he had a cardboard box for her to carry her purchases in, and when he said it, I wanted to jump the counter and officially welcome him to my "sure don't" life list. My hand shook with suppressed excitement as I distractedly wrote him a check for the wrong amount. Shared language creates a common space, even if that space is hard to pin down on any map. I always get a thrill when I find I've crossed the shifty border into "sure don't" America.

Illustration by Charles Barsotti