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

Happy New Year, Night Vale!  Last night’s fireworks extravaganza at the Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area was beautiful.  This is despite the fact that the Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area never really existed, and was in no way a multi-million dollar failure of municipal planning.  And just because the only things remaining on the premises are several large piles of rubble and a red sign reading ‘NOTHING IS HERE.  NOTHING WAS EVER HERE’  does not mean that they failed to correctly use tax dollars to build a harbor, a waterfront, or a recreation area.  Anyway, the fireworks over the city-made sign were lovely. Happy 2013.    

And similarly, from episode 8 (transcript source, bolding mine): 

We’re receiving word from the City Council that there was absolutely not a Pink Floyd Multimedia Laser Spectacular this weekend at Radon Canyon— that there was never a Pink Floyd Multimedia Laser Spectacular ever near Night Vale. “Pink Floyd is not even thing," said the Council, in a very stern, but quiet, statement just received by me, here, via phone. […]The Council…and this is strange…the entire Council, not just a representative of the Council, but the entire Council, just issued this statement, all speaking in unison, just now, over the phone: that Night Vale citizens are prohibited from discussing any lights or sounds coming from Radon Canyon this past weekend, and that they should just stop remembering Pink Floyd shows altogether. The Council reiterated that there is no way that they are huge Floyd fans, privately using public funds on a laser-powered seance to talk “hard-rockin’ classic jams” with the ghost of original front man Syd Barrett, and that Syd “wouldn’t even say anything juicy anyway, because he is such a gentleman, and an artist”. This did not happen at all.

How did you interpret these passages? You probably concluded that there was in fact a Waterfront Recreation Area and a Pink Floyd Multimedia Laser Spectacular and that the City Council was trying to cover them up. But you can’t have gotten those ideas from the literal meaning of the passages, because, after all, they were negated.

So we have to go a level deeper. Why would someone have bothered talk in such extensive detail about something that didn’t happen? There were lots of things that didn’t happen to me yesterday, including wearing furry pants, consuming wheat by-products, and growing a third eye, but I don’t go around listing them all to everyone. In fact, the list of things that hasn’t happened is probably infinite. Why would someone mention a particular one? 

The basic reason is summed up in one of Grice’s Maxims: Be relevant. In other words, when someone says something, we as listeners assume that it was somehow relevant. There are many other things that do not exist in Night Vale: why would the City Council have bothered to assert that a Waterfront Recreation Area and a Pink Floyd Multimedia Laser Spectacular do not exist unless they were somehow relevant to the townspeople, perhaps because they saw or heard the traces of things that looked a lot like them? 

It’s the same reason that it’s suspicious to see box of cereal with the words “asbestos-free!” (as aptly stated by xkcd). 

Cereal never contains asbestos, but the fact that someone went to the bother of denying it means that we assume that asbestos is relevant to cereal and thus we immediately view the other cereals with suspicion by contrast. It’s successful marketing via Grice’s Maxim of Relevance. 


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.

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