‘So don’t I” — meaning, basically, “so do I” — has long been one of New England’s favorite linguistic curios. It has popped up in lists like “10 Things Only People from New Hampshire Understand” and “The Wicked Good Guide to Boston English” for decades. Lexington native Rachel Dratch mockingly employed it in a 2001 “Saturday Night Live” skit: “I mean, Sully may lack book smarts, street smarts, and basic emotional intelligence, but you know what? So don’t I.”
But although people often view regionalisms like “so don’t I” as on the way out, it is one of many that is actually thriving — within New England, at least. Today, according to new data from the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, a study on regional differences in American dialects, “so don’t I” (and related constructions like “so aren’t I,” “so couldn’t I”) is now most prevalent among younger speakers in the region. In other words, “It’s alive and well,” according Yale linguist Jim Wood. The real mystery may be why this highly functional term never caught on more widely outside the Northeast.
The Yale project, supported by the National Science Foundation, has been surveying speakers across the country on localisms like “done my homework,” “liketa,” “might could,” and many others, including New England favorites like “wicked.” (Wood, a native of New Hampshire, said he could never understand why the old Newbury Comics logo, “For a Wicked Good Time,” was such a big deal: “For a very good time?”)
Its new survey on “so don’t I” is the first nationwide look at the term, and it turned out to be one of the most regionally specific in the entire project. When you ask people across the country whether the sentence “Jordan wants to go there wicked bad” is grammatically sound, many more people in eastern New England find it acceptable than anywhere else (90 percent), but large minorities across the country do as well. Yet the sentence, “Sure I could help you, but so couldn’t my brother, and he’s free right now,” found acceptable by about half the people in eastern New England, is barely acceptable at all anywhere else.
While income, race, and gender seem to have little to do with who uses the construction, age does. People under 40 in eastern New England were more likely to find it acceptable than older people there, suggesting that it’s not about to die out.
The Yale linguists had no explanation for what makes one construction spread, and one stay within its regional confines. In the case of “so don’t I,” although the term may seem bizarre if you’re not used to it, it’s one of many phrases in English and other languages where the negatives and positives don’t quite tally up as they should. “Negatives are just very hard for humans to process,” said Wood’s colleague on the project, linguist Laurence Horn, and people get them wrong all the time. “I could care less” or “I miss not seeing you,” are just two examples among many. Wood also says he is at a loss to explain why “so don’t I” is restricted to New England, while another, grammatically similar phrase — “aren’t you [adjective]” to mean, “you’re really quite [adjective]!” — has gone global.
The Dictionary of American Regional English dates its first example of “so don’t I” back to a 1912 novel called “Nora-Square-Accounts,” by Fanny McKinney, a forgotten work of fiction about a farming family that seems to be set in New Jersey (the author’s background is less clear). Generally, though, most examples appear in New England. Linguists have traced it as far north as Maine and as far south as Erie, Pa., with isolated pockets appearing wherever New Englanders settle — DeKalb County, Ill., for instance.
The phrase itself goes back to Shakespeare. In a 2014 book by the Yale team, Horn cites Viola in “Twelfth Night”: “Methinks his words do from such passion fly, / That he believes himself: so do not I.” But Viola means that she isn’t convinced by Antonio’s words, not that she finds him credible. The New England meaning, which would be about the opposite, is more recent. The DARE materials file from 1980 notes: “Heard in New England at least since 1959, esp. among younger people. E.g. ‘I really like blueberries!’—‘So don’t I!’ ”
DARE also quotes a 1962 New York Times Book Review article, by a Bostonian, who calls “so don’t I” “the old jocular negative.” But only someone who didn’t grow up with the term would describe it this way. “So don’t I” isn’t meant to be funny at all. Nor does it mean, exactly, “so do I.”
According to Wood, although the construction is often taken as an example of a contronym — words that mean the same as their opposite — it has a subtly different, rather complex function. It’s often used to correct a false assumption that you might not agree with the speaker. In the blueberry example above, for instance, you’d be most likely to say “so don’t I” if you believed your addressee thought you didn’t also like blueberries. Otherwise, the use of the phrase might sound a bit defensive, and be met with, “I never said you didn’t!”
The phrase can be also used, Wood added, to agree with a surprising or unexpected statement, or a statement you’d be assumed not to agree with. If the sentence were something more like, “I really like to put peanut butter on my blueberries!”, then “Yum, so don’t I!”, would sound appropriate, both recognizing the oddness of the statement and, against all expectations, agreeing with it.
So although “so don’t I” may sound arcane to outsiders, New Englanders aren’t about to give up this handy non-negative negative any time soon.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.
Map: Where you can hear ‘so don’t I’
Correction: An earlier version of this column used the term “pleonasm” where the correct term should have been “contronym.”