In modern English, double negatives usually cancel each other out. So in the sentence 'He can't not eat it', most English speakers would understand it to mean 'he must eat it'.
In Old English, double and multiple negation does not cancel out the negation, it emphasises it. So the more negations included in a sentence, the more the negative aspect of the statement is stressed. For example, examine the sentence below from the Gospel of John: 'Ne geseah næfre nan mann god'. A completely literal translation would be 'has not seen never no man God', but a more faithful translation would be 'no one has ever seen God'. The negations in the Old English are used to emphasise the point and they do not cancel each other out.
As you can see in the sentence above, verbs are not the only words to prefix the negative particle. The adverb 'æfre - ever/always' becomes 'næfre', while the pronoun in 'an mann' meaning 'any man' is prefixed with the negative particle 'ne', to give us the negated pronoun 'nan - not any man'.
Other common negations you may commonly come across are 'nahwær - nowhere', and 'nealles - not/not at all'. Finally, the determiner 'no' in Old English is 'na', so a question might be answered with 'gea - yes' or 'na - no'.
Although in modern English double negations are not generally used, some dialects of English retain double negation. For example 'I don't know nothing' is a double negative that means 'I don't know anything'.Return to Negated Verbs Continue to Negation Summary