Emphasising the Negative

This post was contributed by Dr Malcolm Edwards, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Emphasising-the-negative-webOne of the serendipitous joys of studying grammars is the occasional discovery that the seemingly duller bits of language often turn out to reflect underlying processes with wider implications for how grammars and languages work.

Negation doesn’t seem like an auspicious point of departure for a journey into the hidden life of language. It has, seemingly forever, provided an opportunity for those with prescriptivist or fascistic tendencies, combined with a taste for spurious logic, a stick to beat the rest of us with for our ignorant and wanton use of supposedly deviant and/or ungrammatical forms such as ‘I never did it’[=’I did not do it’], or (the Mark of the Beast, this one) the double negative ‘I didn’t do nothing’[=’I didn’t do anything’].

But negation left to itself -as it should be – does have an unsettling tendency to change form, and an equally unsettling tendency to make its point using expressions ranging from the comparatively mild (John Wayne’s ‘the Hell I do!’[roughly = ‘I most decidedly do not’), to the taboo ‘the f*** I will’ [unequivocally = ‘I will not under any circumstances’].

How negative constructions evolve

Nearly 100 years ago, Otto Jespersen proposed the Jespersen Cycle, a model of how negative constructions evolve. Jespersen described how changes in negation arise from a tension between expressive means and expressive needs.

Jespersen puts it like this: ‘the incongruity between the notional importance and the formal insignificance of the negative marker may… cause the speaker to add something to make the sense perfectly clear’ (Jespersen, 2017: 4-5). If we take French as an example, the original marker of negation was ‘non’ (itself originally Latin, and still alive and well as the French for ‘no’). Over time, ‘non’ became ‘ne’ – in Jespersen’s terms, losing formal significance – a little word easily eclipsed by bigger words, but still having a big job to do.

To reinforce ‘ne’, the word ‘pas’ was introduced to the negative construction. ‘Pas’ was (and still is, when it’s not doing a bit of negation on the side) an ordinary noun meaning ‘step’. Over more time, ‘pas’ itself begins to become the negative marker. This would be of limited interest if it only happened in French, but the same process is found in other languages. In Egyptian Arabic, for example, negation is marked by ma… sh. ‘ma’ is the negative marker proper, and ‘sh’ is a vestigial form of the word shey ‘thing’. And in Egyptian, too, there are indications that ‘sh’ is encroaching on ‘ma’s’ territory.


Jespersen did not discuss the role of taboo words in negatives such as ‘He doesn’t know squat/f***/s***[=absolutely nothing at all]’, but he would undoubtedly admit that they are a clear case of the speaker adding something to make the sense clear. Horn (2001) dubs these forms ‘squatitatives’, which start life as minimising negatives, with the taboo element subsequently becoming a negative item in its own right, semantically equivalent to ‘(absolutely)nothing’, as in ‘He knows squat’. Squatitatives are not negative markers as such and we can be reasonably confident that the ruder emphatics will not be taking over responsibility for negation any time soon, but like the reanalysis of French ‘pas’ and Egyptian ‘sh’, they are instances of how words originally selected to perform an emphatic role lose their original meaning and take on a grammatical function.

Find out more

Horn, L (2001): Flaubert Triggers, Squatitative Negation and other quirks of grammar. In Hoeksma, J. H. Rullman, V. Sanchez-Valencia and T. van Wouder (2001): Papers on Negatives and Polarity Items. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Jespersen, O (1917): Negation in English and Other Languages. Copenhagen: A.F.Host and Sons.


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