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Rethinking Comparative Syntax (ReCoS)

Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Studying at Cambridge


Development of negation in languages of Europe

The development of negation in the languages of Europe (University of Cambridge)

Project Website

Many languages in central northwestern Europe (Breton, Dutch, English, French, German, Mainland Scandinavian, Welsh) have undergone similar changes in the expression of negation. Two interrelated developments are common: 

(i) preverbal negation markers are 'strengthened' and eventually replaced by newly innovated postverbal markers (Jespersen's Cycle) 
(ii) indefinite pronouns used as negative polarity items acquire an inherently negative meaning and become negative quantifiers (e.g. French personne 'anyone' > 'no one') 

These changes are also frequent in non-European (e.g. Niger-Congo) languages, yet European languages outside this zone (West Slavonic, Goidelic Celtic) have been conservative in their development of negation, maintaining a preverbal clitic as the main marker of sentential negation.

This project aims to answer a number of research questions that arise from these observations: Are the innovatism of central northwestern Europe and the conservatism of the rest of Europe coincidental, or the result of language contact, or both? What are the interactions between these and other concomitant syntactic changes? How can we account for the apparent 'naturalness' of the changes observed? What implications do these patterns have for syntactic theory and models of language change? Negation and language change affecting it raise issues for historical and formal linguistics on a more general scale.