I Won’t.

I’m reading Turgenev’s Veshnie vody, translated The Torrents of Spring or Spring Floods, and occasionally checking my understanding of obscure bits by consulting the 1895 Edward Richter translation; I was amused just now to see this bit of dialogue:

“Well, I will not — I will not go on,” said Maria Nikolaievna, hastily. “You are displeased with this. Forgive me — I will not! Don’t be angry!”

That’s Richter’s ridiculously formal version of this:

— Ну, не буду, не буду, — поспешно проговорила Марья Николаевна. — Вам это неприятно, простите меня, не буду! не сердитесь!

Marya Nikolaevna, to whom poor besotted Sanin is trying to sell his estate so he can marry his beloved Gemma, is a hard-headed businesswoman but presents herself as a flighty, flirtatious girl, and a more situationally appropriate translation might be something like:

“I’ll be good, I promise!” Marya Nikolaevna quickly said. “You didn’t like that, I’m sorry and I won’t do it any more! Don’t be mad!”

But what struck me linguistically is the absence of an equivalent in English for this use of “не буду” (‘I won’t’) as a child’s exclamation. In Russian it can be either negative (“Не буду и все!” [I won’t do what you want, that’s all!]) or a repentant promise (“Прости меня, я больше так не буду” [Forgive me, I won’t do it any more]), and we only have the former (“I won’t!!”), but it’s the latter that’s used here; the scene of a crying child saying “не буду, не буду” when caught in a misdeed and trying to avert punishment is primordial, but in English kids don’t say that, they say “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t mean to” or whatever. So poor Richter has entirely misunderstood the line in Turgenev.

Comments

  1. How about shall? In England it can be either negative (“Shan’t!” [I won’t do what you want, that’s all!]) or a repentant promise (“I shall not, thou shalt not” [Forgive me, I won’t do it any more]).

  2. Really? Kids in England say “I shall not” in moments of fear and stress?? Talk about nations divided by a common language!

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    Most of the limited number of 21st century texts in the google books corpus including the bigram “I shan’t” are reprints of older texts and/or written in an old-timey style, but there look to be at least three recent British novels where it appears in ordinary dialogue, two of which have contemporary or at least not-obviously-not-contemporary (based on a really really quick glance) settings and the last of which is a science-fiction piece set in the year 6250, although I’m not sure if that’s counted according to A.D. reckoning.

  4. But is that a similar child’s use, or just “I shan’t” = “I won’t” in random contexts?

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    Some researcher with more free time than me would need to go through the books more thoroughly to see if there is seemingly random variation between “shan’t” and “won’t” or if the former is used only by specific characters of specific age or social background, or in certain limited contexts, or what have you. If I heard a random British-accented person saying it I think my default assumption would be Briticism rather than archaism, FWIW.

  6. My kids say “I’ll stop” or “I’m stopping” or “I already stopped” (but usually while still doing it).

  7. If I heard a random British-accented person saying it I think my default assumption would be Briticism rather than archaism, FWIW.

    Yes, sure, I’m aware the Brits say “shan’t”; my interest is not in the variation between “shan’t” and “won’t” but in the use of either by children as an automatic reaction to parental anger or potential anger.

  8. In “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, one of Dudley Dursley’s first words is ‘Shan’t!’. In “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone” this becomes “Won’t!” (It’s clearly a stubborn shan’t, not a repentant one.)

  9. Thanks, a good illustration of my point about English-language usage.

  10. Can’t Stop, Shan’t Stop is an album by Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer.

  11. As a fairly linguistically conservative Brit, I don’t at all share AJP Cowan’s impression that “shall not” can have that conciliatory sense. Today it would seem an archaicism, and even in a historical novel, I’d understand it by default as stubborn. With appropriate context it could certainly be apologetic — “Don’t you ever do that again!” // “I shan’t, I shan’t!” — but absent such context I don’t think I’d even think of the apologetic meaning as a possibility.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    AJP Cowan !! A chimera for our times.

  13. John Cowan says:

    Indeed.

    I agree that in that context, transposed to the key of America, “I won’t, I won’t” is an entirely appropriate response for “You better not do that again!” This “won’t” is more prolonged than the “I won’t!” of refusal.

  14. I agree that in that context, transposed to the key of America, “I won’t, I won’t” is an entirely appropriate response for “You better not do that again!”

    Sure, but only as a response; I can’t see it being used as a standalone.

  15. As a fairly linguistically conservative Brit
    No, me too.

    I don’t at all share AJP Cowan’s impression that “shall not” can have that conciliatory sense

    I can’t see why conciliatory, but anyway:

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In Englands green & pleasant Land.

    Brexit “shall not be construed to prevent: a) advantages accorded by any contracting party to adjacent countries in order to facilitate frontier traffic .” (GATT via Irish Times, 2018.)

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Infix of the year: Regrexit.

  17. I can’t see why conciliatory, but anyway

    Again, the question is solely about standalone use by children as an apotropaic statement, not about general, let alone poetic, usage.

  18. To repeat: in Russian, “не буду” (‘I won’t’) is commonly said by children as a response to being caught doing something they know they’re not supposed to; as far as I’m aware, English-speaking kids do not use “I won’t” (or “I shan’t”) in a similar way, though of course they can use it as a response to being told not to do something. I hope that’s clear enough.

  19. “Peter, clear up your toys right now!”

    “Shan’t!” says Peter.

    This is what you mean? I’m guessing there are many examples in children’s literature uttered by ten-year-old going on fifty Violet Elizabeth Bott, in Richmal Crompton’s William books. Yes, they’re old, but so am I.

  20. No, I mean when Peter is happily making a mess in the living room and his mother stalks in and catches him red-handed. Does Peter say “Shan’t!” without his mother saying a thing? I thought not.

  21. I think they used to say “Alas!”

    Nowadays, “It’s a fair cop.”

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    The epenthetic AJP Crowan.

  23. “It’s a fair cop, but society’s to blame.”

  24. A limerick by Michael Kay, with my comments in square brackets:

    A poetical purist named Cowan [that’s me]
    Once put the rest of us dowan. [on xml-dev mailing list]
    “Your verse would be sweeter
    If it only had metre
    And rhymes that didn’t force me to frowan.” [overpacked line!]

  25. (Apologies to AJPC for the misspelling.) To be clear, I’m saying that my intuition for the usage of shan’t/shall not in BrE pretty much agrees with LH’s intuition for won’t in AmE, modulo the slight old-fashionedness of shan’t — I don’t think there’s much “divided by a common language” here. To my ear, for Shan’t! or Shall not! to be “a repentant promise” (or a fearful capitulation, and so on…), it needs to be responding to a pretty specific context — I’d be surprised and confused to hear a child (in either real life or a novel) using it like the Не буду! of the original post.

  26. Cohen is an an ancient and revered name. I don’t see why you have to disguise it.

  27. To be clear, I’m saying that my intuition for the usage of shan’t/shall not in BrE pretty much agrees with LH’s intuition for won’t in AmE, modulo the slight old-fashionedness of shan’t

    Glad to hear it!

  28. “Apologies to AJPC for the misspelling.”

    Thank you, Peter. Really the more it’s misspelled the better.

  29. John Cowan says:

    Y: I don’t. The name I am disguising is Mac Eoghain, also an ancient and revered name. But considering what anglophones do to Cowan, restoring the true spelling would be quite hopeless.

  30. JC: I was kidding. Or I was addressing AJP. Or I really meant to write Kogan.

  31. And rhymes that didn’t force me to frowan.” [overpacked line!]

    A poetical purist named Cowan [that’s me]
    Once put the rest of us dowan:
    “Your verse would be sweeter
    In anapest metre
    With iambs that celebrate Crowan.”

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Kogan

    …itself an ancient and revered name?

  33. To my ear that phrase doesn’t really sound like a child’s repentant “[я больше] не буду”. I would say it really needs that “больше”.

    Also, FYA, here is a pretty obvious but still funny pun on that repentant meaning in “Tам где нас нет” fantasy novel by Михаил Успенский. The hero has just killed two very bad guys:

    Жихарь вынес голову во двор к самому тыну и насадил на кол […].
    Рядом пристроил голову Магоги, а под ними прикрепил пергамент с надписью:

    ЭТО БЫЛИ ГОГА И МАГОГА. ОНИ БОЛЬШЕ НЕ БУДУТ.

  34. Very funny! As for the phrase, I’ve definitely seen it in that use without the “больше” but doubtless usage differs.

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