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The development of negation in the languages of Europe

Arts and Humanities Research Council award no. AR119272
June 2006-June 2010

The project

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:

  1. preverbal negation markers are 'strengthened' and eventually replaced by newly innovated postverbal markers (Jespersen's Cycle)
  2. 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.

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David Willis (Principal investigator)
Anne Breitbarth (Research associate)
Chris Lucas (Project PhD student)
Britta Jensen (External consultant) Liliane Haegeman (External consultant)

This project is funded by the

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Department of Linguistics
Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
University of Cambridge
Sidgwick Avenue,
Cambridge, CB3 9DA

Tel: 01223 335010
Fax: 01223 335053
Last updated on 19 December 2009