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Four Potential Meanings of Double Negation

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The Pragmatics of nicht un-Constructions

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The figurative use of double negations (not uninteresting, not unhappy) has been described by linguists and rhetoricians with regards to the rhetorical figure litotes. Both mitigation and strengthening have been proposed as aims of litotes (Horn, 1989; Krifka, 2007; van der Wouden, 1996). An analysis of the construction nicht un-adjective (not un-adj.) on the basis of German corpora leads to a coherent system of pragmatic functions for this sort of double negations. The construction can function as denial, potential presumption denial, mitigation or understatement. Nevertheless, litotes exemplifies the “indeterminate nature of figurative meaning” as suggested by Colston/Gibbs (2012: 259) in their dynamical systems approach. It is argued that a clear-cut line between literal and figurative meaning cannot be ascertained for these constructions. Still, contextual signals such as correction, associative particles or conventionalisation of use can help to identify different meanings as primary.

Affiliations: 1: Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany


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