Je ne veux pas que tu l’aies.

Je ne veux pas que tu l’aies.

zhuhn vuh pahk tew lay. Click below to hear this.

I don’t want you to have it.

Henry, my grandson, noticed the mostly-chipped nail polish on my toenails. Apparently it offended his three-year-old stylistic sensibilities, because he touched my toes and said, I want you not have it.

I suspect that the way the human brain works, we experience our desires as a positive force. What we want may be a negative (for something not to happen), but our desire is a strong pull for things to be as we wish them to be.

If that is so, it may help to explain the problem language learners often have with expressing the negative. In English, we usually say I don’t want you to have it (in French, Je ne veux pas que tu l’aies.), rather than I want you not to have it (Je veux que tu ne l’aies pas). These are different requests, with the second being stronger and perhaps even a bit malevolent.

Is it possible that the workings of a language can run counter to our primitive brain wiring? I doubt it. Rather, I imagine that we learn to moderate our desires, and to wish more mildly. In a sense, the language civilizes us into being more polite. Henry’s language skills simply aren’t there yet. Give him time.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the English requires a modal verb, do, to express the negative, and that the French requires the subjunctive to express the desire. Either one can uncivilize a student in a heartbeat.

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