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La Négation

 | 
Stéphanie Bonnefille
, 
Sébastien Salbayre

Poétique et esthétique : de la négation au négatif

Negation in children's literature

Karen Kow Yip Cheng

Résumé

For Chomsky, negation is not part of what he calls the “underlying strings” or the deep structure of language, which is tautological, simple, separate, and repetitious. Negation is one of many possible surface transformations into the interrogative, passive, etc. Chomsky calls negation an insertion transformation, one of four elementary transformational operations, and one which adds something to, or inserts something into, the deep structure. This paper examines negation and how it is employed in children’s literature. This study is an exploratory one as the analysis of negation and affirmation is a highly complex one to achieve even in adult literature. Further children’s literature in itself is a complex area. Hence what is attempted in this study is an examination of negation in children’s literature which entails analysis of negation in children’s discourse, adult discourse and children’s literature

Texte intégral

1The Merriam Webster Online dictionary defines negation as “a logical proposition formed by asserting the falsity of a given proposition. Something that is the absence of something actual. Something considered the opposite of something regarded as positive”.

2For Chomsky, negation is not part of what he calls the “underlying strings” or the deep structure of language, which is tautological, simple, separate, and repetitious. Negation is one of many possible surface transformations into the interrogative, passive etc. Chomsky calls negation an insertion transformation, one of four elementary transformational operations, and one which adds something to or inserts something into the deep structure.

3This paper examines negation and how it is employed in children's literature. This study is an exploratory one as the analysis of negation and affirmation is a highly complex one to achieve even in adult literature. Further children's literature in itself is a complex area. Hence what is attempted in this study is an examination of negation in children's literature, which entails analysis of negation in children's discourse, adult discourse and children's literature. This path is taken because children's literature is created by adults for children. Hence what one reads is what an adult conceives of as negation in a child's world.

4“Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable”. If, as Kurrick (1979, 113) states, “Reality is dense, impenetrable, and unintelligible because it is so vast and so particular. It is a chaos without meaning and order, but it is overwhelmingly and oppressively present; it is fundamentally non representable reality that is equivalent to nothing.”

5How does one write a novel on the background of nothingness? Greater is the task of the author of children's literature for attempting to portray reality which is non-presentable in the world of a child where he is only a sojourner for the brief moment during which the story unfolds.

6Christ, as the “Word” of God, knows the meaning of all words. There is a parallel in the statement above to this study in that adults presume to know and encode negation in children's literature; perhaps in reality “no man knows it”. This study will be of interest to researchers, caretakers, parents and all who strive to know what lies within the cognition of the other for “the self in solitude seems to turn to pure negation”.

CHILDREN'S LITERATURE DEFINED

7A diagrammatic definition of children's literature may be envisaged as the one below:

8Children's literature is books written by adults for children. At the onset, then, there exists a tension between what an adult conceives to be children's literature and what the child conceives literature to be. On the one hand, children want to derive fun from reading a book. On the other hand is the functionality of books as viewed by adults. After all, awards go to children's literature which is selected not by children but by adults whose selection criteria are based on what a book can do for children. Perhaps, there is then perhaps the over-riding need for children's books to teach good moral values. The other functions of children's literature are to teach the basic mechanics of reading, and then to promote learning of the language in which the book is written. In this study it will be interesting to explore if this overwhelming didactic function of children's literature is carried forward to the area of negation.

9Cultural institutions, genre and style interact with a material effect, not just to code human behaviour but to shape it. The danger is present then that adult's in depicting negation in a particular stance may influence and hence go on to shape the use of negation.

CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

10Having defined children's literature and looked its main functions, one should explore some of its characteristics. By contrast to adult or adolescent literature, children's literature:

  • is shorter in length

  • has a child protagonist

  • employs conventions

  • usually contains a clear moral statement

  • is optimistic rather than depressive

  • has language tailored to level of child

  • has plots that are clear cut

  • uses active treatment rather than passive

  • have elements of fantasy, magic or adventure.

11Most fiction for children up to early adolescence is characterised by a lexis and grammar simplified relative to the notional audience: sentences are right-branching, and within them clauses are mainly linked by coordination, temporality or causality; and the use of qualifiers and figurative language is restricted.

12Children's literature makes use of the main principles which inform actual or represented conversations: the principles of cooperation, the principle of politeness and the principle of irony. An utterance should be of appropriate size; it should be correct or truthful; it should relate back to the previous speaker's utterance (a change of subject and a change of register may both be breaches of relation); it should be clear, organised and unambiguous; and each speaker should have a fair share of the conversation, that is, be able to take his or her tum in an orderly way and be able to complete what s/he wants to say (Leech 1983; Stephens 1992b, 76-96).

NEGATION AS IT IS EMPLOYED IN AN ADULTS' WORLD

13In everyday discourse our use of negative sentences typically prepares the way for positive assertion. We use the negative to indicate that something is wrong with a claim under consideration, and then go on to suggest alternatives. Therefore, denial is not only to pose a contradictory to some proposition but to claim something is wrong with the proposition and to indicate which is the objectionable item.

14In a natural language, negation serves as part of what is involved in different types of denials, objections, criticisms, etc. We indicate that something is wrong with an affirmative sentence and by negating this or that constituent; we also indicate which part of the affirmation is objectionable:

The cat is not on the mat.
The dog is.
The cat is on the sofa.

15What constituent negation enables us to do is to indicate which part of a sentence needs to be revised in order for that sentence to convey correct information.

16Of interest in this study is the opposition that arises for a comparative study of negation as it is used by children and negation as employed in children's literature.

CONSTRUCTION IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

17In the writing process itself, the writer constructs a child and inevitably there is some form of “writing down”. Wall comments:

Whenever a writer shows consciousness of an immature audience, in the sense of adapting the material of the story or the techniques of the discourse for the benefit of child readers, that writer might be said to be writing down, that is, acknowledging that there is a difference in the skills, interests, and frame of reference of children and adult. (1991, 15)

18In other words, writing down occurs in children's literature because the adult author constructs the child as one who is less proficient in the language and one who is less capable of decoding values.

19The tension of children still acquiring the finer nuances of the very language which is used to encode the story is a real one. Nevertheless, as White (1973, 140) advises, the author must meet the child on a level playing ground: “You have to write up, not down.”

20Easier said than done. The question then is how does one define writing up versus writing down. These are then questions that can be answered using the corpus linguistic method. With an available corpus, a writer/researcher can then clearly state what “real child language” is. The writer is then able to decide whether (s) he should write down or up.

21This leads inevitably to the question of how a child decodes a story. Obviously we perceive children to be less than capable of decoding the meaning of a story, hence the need to write down. It is without doubt that vocabulary and sentence structure has to be tailored to a child's needs. Hence the availability of readers which are selected based on the number of vocabulary used in a particular story. Nevertheless, insight is offered in White's statement: “They love words that give them a hard time.” (White 1973, 140)

22The question then arises as to whether there is really a need to write down. Are children less than capable of decoding meaning?In a study done on Malaysian children aged from four to six it was found that children could process complex meaning in a story. (Kow 2000) When asked for the meaning of “greedy”, as heard in the story of The Greedy Dog, the answer given by the majority of the respondents was that greed meant wanting the other bone while two others pointed out it meant wanting a lot of bones. These answers are acceptable in so far as they apply to the story of the greedy dog. In this story, greed is equated with desiring the other bone or wanting more than one bone. The answers above show that the respondents understood the meaning of the concept of greed. Other answers given include:

  1. Greedy means not wanting to share toys.

  2. Greedy means not wanting to share things.

23The answers seem to point to the fact that greedy is synonymous with selfish. Perhaps it is the child's observation that greedy people are also selfish people, that is, they not only grab all the toys but also keep them all to themselves. (Kow, 2000). More important in this study is how children employ negation in everyday usage and on the other hand how do adult writers of children's literature perceive negation as used in a child's world.

NEGATION AS IT IS EMPLOYED BY CHILDREN IN DISCOURSE

24In a study on sixty Malaysian children aged between four and six, it was found that the respondents employed three different types of negation. Type 1 indicates a situation where the respondent declares that the answer is unknown as in example 1.. A below:

Example 1. A
Researcher: Why did Humpty Dumpty sit on the wall ?
Respondent: I don't know.
(Shrugs her shoulder.)
Example 1. B
Researcher: Why couldn't they put Humpty
Dumpty together again ?
Respondent: I don't know.

25In Type 1 it can be seen that the respondent provided an honest and straight-forward reply. Nevertheless the answer to the question remains unknown. In other words the respondent was unable to answer the question.

26Type 2 is parallel to Type 1, the only difference being that the message is conveyed through the use of body language. Data drawn from this study showed the message “I don't know” was conveyed using two different forms of gestures. The first was through the shaking of the head as in example 4. J below:

Example l. C
Researcher: Do you sit on the wall ?
Respondent: No response. (
Shakes head.)

27The same message “I don't know” was also conveyed through the shrugging of shoulders, for example:

Example l. D
Researcher: Why did she run?

28The conclusion may be drawn that body language is used in Type 2 to convey the message “I don't know.”

29Types 1 and 2 responses are labelled < disclaim >. Under Stenstrom's (1994) classification this answer is defined as fulfilling the function of declaring that the answer is unknown.

30A simple tabulation of the number of times Type 1 was used as opposed to Type 2 is shown below:

TABLE 1: THE USE OF TYPE 1 VERSUS TYPE 2

Age

Type 1

Type 2

Total

4

7

1

8

5

5

3

8

6

2

6

8

Total

14

10

24

31From table 1 above it can be seen that Type 1 strategy, that is, the “I don't know” strategy, is more widely used if compared to Type 2, the “No response” strategy. Among the respondents aged four the Type 1 is used (7 times) and respondents aged five (5 times), it can be said therefore that the Typel response is more popular. Perhaps this means that younger respondents are more likely to confess to the fact that they do not know the answer as compared to older respondents.

32However, it can be seen that among the older respondents, that is, respondents aged six the “I don't know” response is only used twice if compared to the “No response” strategy which is used six times. Perhaps the older respondents are bolder and by remaining silent they are showing that they are not interested in giving a response to the question.

33The response “I don't know”, both the verbal and nonverbal type, performs a function. Under Halliday's functional category (1975), the samples above would fall under the category of interactional function, while under the macro-functions it will fall under the interpersonal category. The child is trying to interact with the researcher who initiated the dialogue with a question. Under Stenstrom's primary acts (1994), the samples above would fall under the functions shown below:

Responses

Functions

Researcher: Why did he fall?

<question>

Respondent: Don't know.

<answer>

Researcher: Who are the King's men?

<question>

Respondent: No response. (Shrugs her shoulders.)

<answer>

34The response “I don't know”, functions not only as an answer to the question initiated by the researcher but also as a statement which informs the researcher that the respondent is unable to continue with the task.

35In type 1, one sees then how negation takes a verbal and non-verbal form in children's discourse. The shrug of a shoulder, the shake of a head, or the statement “I don't know” is denial by the speaker of the assumption that the speaker has the answer.

THE FUNCTIONS FULFILLED BY TYPE 3

36Type 3 is where the respondent, in a sense, delays answering the question via the use of negation. This was done by giving a response that was beside the point. What the respondent did in this case was to circumvent answering the question by talking about something else and offering an excuse in place of an answer.

TABLE 2: RESPONSES IN TYPE 3

TABLE 2: RESPONSES IN TYPE 3

37Type 3 responses may take the form of a reason as to why the respondent cannot handle the task, see examples below. In the examples below the functions categorised according to Stenstorm's acts are listed in the right-hand column. (In the examples “Re” refers to the researcher and “Re x” refers to the numbered respondent):

38It is interesting to note the various reasons offered by the respondents for not being able to carry out a set task. In example 1. E, the respondent claimed he had no favourite story, while in 1. F it was a case of selective memory. The respondent in example l. G chose not to talk about “The Power Rangers” as he claimed he no longer enjoyed that program. The respondent in example l. H claimed he had no time to carry out the activity set by the researcher. All in all, one can see the resourcefulness of children. Not only can they produce excuses but they also carry it off with a flair that adults lack. They feel completely at ease giving excuses that may not be socially acceptable, for example, “I forgot”, for not carrying out a set task.

39Type 3 fulfils the interactional and the heuristic function under Halliday's personal function, while under the macro-functions it fulfils the interpersonal and the ideational function. It also fulfils another function, that of the personal function which is an expression of identity and self. In examples l. F and l. G, the respondents informed the researcher that they wanted to withdraw from the task. In doing so they are fulfilling the personal function. In example 1. H Halliday's personal function and Stenstrom's primary act of &lt; opine &gt; is fulfilled, that is, giving one's personal opinion. In this case it is one of expressing one's dislike, that is, using language to affirm one's individuality.

40In type 3, negation is carried out with great creativity. One sees this in 1. F where the respondent employs the word “forget” that is inherently negative. 1. G sees the use of a double negative, that is, “I don't watch anymore” and “I don't like”. The double negative is used to indicate something is wrong with the assumption that the respondent enjoys watching “Power Rangers”. Also it is used to assert the individuality of the respondent who makes it clear that he does not enjoy “Power Rangers”.

41One sees then from the analysis of the 3 types of negation employed by children in discourse, the creativity of children at play. In the next section negation in children's literature is explored.

NEGATION AS IT IS EMPLOYED BY ADULT WRITERS OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

42In the section on children's discourse, excerpts of real discourse involving negation were presented. In this section excerpts of negation as it is used in children's literature are presented.

43In example 2.A below, negation is used in a verse. The negation involves the denial of the fear of drowning. The positive assertion then is that floating in the green umbrella is fun. However, the shortcoming is that she did not have a bun. It is obvious that “bun” rhymes with “fun” and hence the need of the protagonist for a bun to make her fun complete:

Example 2. A
The Green Umbrella by A. J. Macgregor
Floating in the green umbrella,
Bluebell though it rather fun ;
Wasn't much afraid of drowning,
But, she thought, she'd like a bun. (p. 48)

44In example 2.B below, one sees a typical example of what constitutes children's literature. Negation is presented in simple and short sentences. The negative sentences are repeated which makes it ideal for teaching the use of negation. Further the latter part of the book presents negation using a pattern that allows for modification, for example, the adjective “angry” is replaced by an inflected form of the verb, that is, “frightened”. This particular story fulfils the function spelt out for children's literature, that is:

  • it inculcates good moral values

  • it teaches the basic mechanics of reading

  • it promotes learning of the language

45What stands out then is the disparity in the way negation is presented in children's literature and negation as it is used in children's discourse. Analysis of real children's discourse shows that negation is used in a very creative manner by children. Further one may question as to whether negation fulfils the maxim of truth. Children may be using negation as a way to remain within the interactive framework of providing an answer even though the target answer is beyond their capability. Hence answers as “I don't know” and “I don't like”. On the other hand, negation presented in children's literature appears to be prescriptive and correct but lacking in creativity. One cannot detract from the fact that written literature should present correct grammatical forms. Nevertheless, the fact remains that children's literature is not reflective of “real language” as it is employed by children in discourse.

46The findings of this study point to the fact that there is then an inherent difference in the way negation is presented in children's literature as compared with the way negation is employed in children's discourse:

47Example 2.B

The Three Little Pigs retold by Vera Southgate
The three little pigs set off. “We will take care that the wolf does not catch us,” they said. (p. 6)
He said, “Now the wolf won't catch me and eat me.” (p. 8)
He said, “Now the wolf won't catch me and eat me.” (p. 12)
He said, “Now the wolf won't catch me and eat me.” (p. 16)
And the little pig said, “No, no, by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I will not let you in.” (p. 18)
And the little pig said, “No, no, by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I will not let you in.” (p. 22)
And the little pig said, “No, no, by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I will not let you in.” (p. 25)
But the house of bricks did not fall down. (p. 26)
The wolf was very angry, but he pretended not to be. He thought, “This is a clever little pig. If I want to catch him, I must pretend to be his friend.” (p. 26
)
The wolf was very angry, but he pretended not to be. (p. 30)
The little pig was very frightened, but he pretended not to be. (p. 32)
The wolf was now very angry, but he still pretended not to be. (p. 34)
The little pig was very frightened, but he said nothing, (p. 41)
There was no lid on the pot (p. 43)

48In this paper, we have had the opportunity to analyse excerpts of children's real discourse and identified 3 types of negation employed by children. We have also analysed examples of negation as tendered by adult writers of children's literature. What stands out in comparing the two is the creativity with which negation was used by children in real discourse. On the other hand, negation in children's literature fulfilled the requirements demanded of it as:

  • It inculcates good moral values,

  • It teaches the basic mechanics of reading,

  • It promotes learning of the language.

49Children are creative beings. In the effort to communicate meaning, they employ negation and overcome all obstacles, be it a problem of vocabulary or of cognition. They will stay within the interactive framework by giving an outright “I don't know” or some innovative excuses.

50Every utterance that a child utters fulfils an act; it may be an answer to a question or it may be a statement of opinion. Therefore, every single utterance has a purpose and is functional. Table 3 below shows a summary of the functions fulfilled by the various types of responses:

TABLE 3: THE FUNCTIONS FULFILLED BY THE RESPONSES

Type

Strategy

Function

1

Answer unknown

Interactional/Interpersonal

2

Body language

Interactional/Interpersonal

3

Excuse given

Interactional/Interpersonal (expressing personal opinion)

51It can be seen from the table above that all three types of negation fulfil the interactional/interpersonal function. Further in Type 3 negation one sees the respondents expressing their personal opinion, this is listed as <opine> under Stenstrom's acts.

52By studying the language employed by adult writers of children's literature, one sees how adults perceive the construction of a child. On the other hand, by analysing real children's discourse, one learns how a child constructs himself/herself. This study is no more than a consciousness raising exercise as to the presence of such a discrepancy. The discrepancy that lies in the adult construction of a child and the way a child constructs himself/herself, in this case in the area of negation.

53Attention to the language of children's fiction has an important implication for evaluation, adding another dimension to the practices or judging books according to their entertainment value as stories or to their socio-political correctness. It can be an important tool in distinguishing between restrictive texts which allow little scope for active reader judgements and text which enable critical and thoughtful responses. This is of utmost importance because of the existence an innate tension between what an adult conceives to be children's literature and what the child conceives literature to be. On the one hand, children want to derive fun from reading a book. On the other hand is the functionality of books as viewed by adults. The concern then is that a prescriptive approach may spell the loss of creativity.

Bibliographie

WORKS CITED

Chomsky N, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1965.

———, Review of Verbal Behaviour, by B. F. Skinner, Language 35, 1959, 26-58.

———, Syntactic Structures, The Hague, Mouton, 1957.

Halliday M.A.K., An Introduction to Functional Grammar, USA, Edward Arnold, 1985.

—, Learning How to Mean, Explorations in the Development of Language, London, Edward Arnold, 1975.

—, Explorations in the Functions of Language, London, Edward Arnold, 1973.

Kow Y. C., “Strategies Employed by Pre-School Children in Communicating Meaning”, PhD Thesis, U. M., 2000.

Kurrik M. J., Literature and Negation, USA, Columbia University Press, 1979.

Leech G. N., Principles of Pragmatics, London, Longman, 1983.

Macgregor A. J., The Green Umbrella, UK, Ladybird Books, Series 401.

Merriam Webster Online dictionaryhttp://www.m-w.com/

Southgate V., The Three Little Pigs, UK, Ladybird Books, Series 401.

Stenstrom Anna-Brita, An Introduction to Spoken Interaction, USA, Longman Publication, 1994.

Stephens J., “Reading the Signs, Sense and Significance in Written Texts”, 1992, in P. Hunt, ed, Understanding Children's Literature, London, Routledge, 1999.

Wall B, The Narrator's Voice, The Dilemma of Children's Fiction, London, Macmillan, 1991.

White E.B, “On writing for children” in V. Haviland, ed, Children and Literature, Views and Reviews, London, Bodley Head, 1973.

Table des illustrations

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Titre TABLE 2: RESPONSES IN TYPE 3
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Auteur

Is a lecturer at the University of Malaya. Her first degree is in English Literature, and she holds a Master’s Degree in Linguistics. Her PhD is in the area of Child Language. She has published widely in the areas of Child Language, Applied Linguistics, Gender, Children’s Literature and Bilingualism. Her publications can be found in TESOL, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Multilingua and Peter Lang. Her other areas of research include Second Language Acquisition, Intercultural communication, Malaysian English and Sociolinguistics. In her capacity as lecturer, she also supervises Master’s and PhD students. Currently, she is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics and oversees the Undergraduate program. She also sits on the Quality Control Panel for evaluating English Language textbooks for Malaysian primary schools. She is examiner for the Malaysian Matriculation English Language paper

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2006

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