Negation: When No Means Yes in Night Vale

Gretchen McCulloch from the All Things Linguistic blog investigates how the podcast Welcome to Night Vale twists negation on its head.

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #386


Normally, we expect a negative statement to mean the opposite of a positive one. For example, “Carlos is a scientist” means the opposite of “Carlos isn’t a scientist.” It’s impossible for both of them to be true at the same time, unless we’ve sneakily introduced two Carloses or two meanings for “scientist,” in which case the one sentence isn’t really the negative equivalent of the other. Existing is the opposite of not-existing. A and not-A are mutually exclusive. That’s negation. 

So far, so good. But in the delightfully surreal podcast Welcome to Night Vale, the writers do some cool things with negation that allow us to conclude a positive statement when we hear someone saying a negative one, using just a little bit of pragmatics. How? Read on. (Minor spoilers for episodes up to 25; knowledge of Night Vale not required). 

Let’s start with a fairly obvious example from episode 25 (transcript source). Cecil, the narrator, says

I had arranged a small ceremony to mark this occasion, and invited Carlos to attend.  However, it looks like he will be…delayed.  But, I am not worried.  I am not upset.  (increasingly upset and tense) I know that Carlos will be here for the ceremony.  I have the trophy here in my hand.  I am holding the trophy and I am not upset.

On the Web, a transcript of the audio notes that Cecil is speaking in an upset and tense tone of voice even as he says, “I am not worried. I am not upset,” clearly indicating to the listener that he is in fact very upset but doesn’t want to admit it. From “I am not upset” we have concluded “I am upset.” This is actually fairly common: if you’ve ever heard someone yell “I’m NOT ANGRY!” you’ve probably concluded the same thing. 

More subtle is the second type of negation, which tends to refer to questionable governmental activities. For example, from episode 14 (transcript source, bolding mine): 


About the Author

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for Grammar Girl

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She is the Resident Linguist at Wired and the co-creator of Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics. She lives in Montreal, but also on the internet.

You May Also Like...