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(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XII, published 1892)

You don't know; you haven't a guess. How would you like to go on deck for your middle watch, fourteen months on end, with all your duty to do and every one's life depending on you, and expect to get a knife ripped into you as you come out of your stateroom, or be sand-bagged as you pass the boat, or get tripped into the hold, if the hatches are off in fine weather? That kind of shakes the starch out of the brotherly love and New Jerusalem business. . . . No; it has an ugly look to it, but the only way to run a ship is to make yourself a terror.”

“Come, Captain,” said I, “there are degrees in everything. You know American ships have a bad name; you know perfectly well if it wasn't for the high wage and the good food, there's not a man would ship in one if he could help; and even as it is, some prefer a British ship, beastly food and all.”

“Oh, the lime-juicers?” said he. “There's plenty booting in lime-juicers, I guess; though I don't deny but what some of them are soft.” And with that he smiled like a man recalling something. “Look here, that brings a yarn in my head,” he resumed; “and for the sake of the joke, I'll give myself away. It was in 1874, I shipped mate in the British ship Maria, from 'Frisco for Melbourne. She was the queerest craft in some ways that ever I was aboard of. . .

What does but what mean in the sentence I don't deny but what some of them are soft? I suspect it is slang or informal and has to be I don't deny but that some of them are soft.

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    The 'but what' is old-fashioned and also dialect. You can change the 'what to 'that' and omit the 'but'. Oct 15, 2023 at 11:25
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    Using but what instead of the (optional) relativizer that is dated and/or dialectal. It's definitely dialectal in contexts like I don't know but what you might be right, but that's not quite the same thing (you can't discard but what completely there, and replacing it with that changes the meaning). Oct 15, 2023 at 11:27
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    @MichaelHarvey: If we were Americans I think you'd owe me a coke! :) Oct 15, 2023 at 11:27
  • @FumbleFingers - I'd offer you an Irn Bru if I wasn't against such things. San Pellegrino? Oct 15, 2023 at 11:31
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    I'll get my own cup of tea, thanks! I think my don't know example is an interesting variant. As I understand it, but what there means but it's possible that, not just that. And whereas the cited example sounds "dated", the exact sense is easily conveyed in modern English simply by removing but what (whether or not that is added back in). But there's no easy way to convey the "dialectal" usage exactly with such a minimal change. Oct 15, 2023 at 11:35

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what can be an exclamatory interjection like indeed. It has been used in that way in English going all the way back to Old English hwæt.

Old English would be too much like German to cite here, but maybe some Chaucer:

Criseyde is now agon; but what, she shal come hastiliche ayeyn!

Criseyde has left; but what, she shall in a short time come again!

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