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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

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Project description

General issues

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.

Research questions

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? In particular, negation raises directionality issues, central elsewhere in historical linguistics: why do changes proceed only along certain pathways; why do indefinite pronouns become negation markers, but negation markers never become indefinite pronouns? Within a formal framework, negation raises important questions about the gradual nature of change: in Jespersen's Cycle, the postverbal marker of negation rises gradually in frequency until it becomes compuslory. Does this period of optionality pose difficulties for formal linguistic theories with discrete categories and in which 'true optionality' is excluded?

Aims and objectives

In the light of these research questions, the project's principal aims and objectives are to:

  1. conduct a systematic survey of the paths of development of negative items in the languages of Europe, establishing whether paths of development are parallel in points of detail and establishing correlations between changes
  2. develop a formal analysis within minimalism of the principal pathways of change
  3. construct a language-internal model of change to explain the developments and their directionality in terms of patterns and strategies of child language acquisition of negation, consistent with the historical patterns noted, and to examine the interaction between an acquisitonal account of the changes and one involving language contact
Research methods

The project will approach these questions from three perspectives. It will conduct a systematic search of philological and linguistic literature on the development of negation in European languages, including the complex interactions with changes involving other aspects of the negation system.

This evidence will be supplemented with textual work undertaken for histories of languages for which the project members have particular expertise. Detailed examination of data at this level will allow comparison across languages on a more even basis, and will give better understanding of the role of language contact.

Thirdly, the project will use data from acquisition studies of negation, supplemented by data extracted for important cases from corpora of child language. Particular attention will be paid to two types of case:

  1. incipient or recent reanalyses, for example, never in English dialects has been reanalysed as a marker of negation
  2. comparison with languages that have not undergone change, that is, stable systems where change could be imagined but has not happened e.g. Polish. Does the acquisition process in these languages prevent change, or is change merely 'waiting to happen'?

Data from these sources will be integrated into a formal analysis of change within minimalism, incorporating insights from child language acquisition and language contact.


The project started in June 2006 and will last until the end of 2009.

Department of Linguistics
Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
University of Cambridge