9 Jun 2007

Negational particles, negational verbs and negational adverbs

I am having another geek moment again. Ever heard of negational verbs? They are the fabbest thing ever. Imagine the word "not" as a verb. Impossible? Even in French, I came to realize there is a potential for such things to arise when we say "Peut-être que non." (meaning "Maybe not."). Normally, que is used to introduce a relative clause, equivalent to English "that" or "which". So having non in the section of the sentence where a verb is expected implies that non here actually is meant to signify "it is not". Hence "Peut-être que non." equals "Maybe that it is not." Modern English employs a modal do to help convey the negative in conjunction with not... so in effect, don't may be in a vague way a kind of "negational verb", no?

Negational verbs are more overt in some languages like Finnish where ei is used to convey "not". An affirmative phrase like menen "I come" becomes en mene "I don't come", or perhaps rather "I am not (who is) coming." The ending -n marks the 1ps and as you can see it migrates to the negative verb when it is present. This can be traced all the way back to a negational verb *ei in Uralic. Here it is considered a verb because it takes the pronominal endings which are normally only used for verbs.

The reason why I have been thinking about this a lot lately is because of Indo-European grammar. At the University of Texas Winfred P. Lehmann's views are explained but I disagree with them. It's tempting in an SOV language to expect that the negational element should always be at the end of a sentence but there are other alternatives.

I was thinking of a negational adverb[1], not particle, in IE's earliest history. It works like this. It is similar to what we see in Uralic but Old Indo-European *nei would be rather a negative verb used to modify the main verb. On its own, *nei would have meant "to not be (true)". In effect it would be like saying "I go." in the affirmative and "I not-truly go." in the negative. Since adverbs tend to be preposed to the verb in natural SOV languages, there's no strong need to expect that *nei was once at the end of the sentence. Open your mind to fresh possibilities, people! Anyways, over time, *nei would erode into a particle *ne, still preposed to the verb like other adverbs until IE finally fragmented into the various branches we recognize today.

[1] (June 11/07) I found an inspiring pdf online called On the Diachronic Development of Negation [pdf]. It discusses the numerous strategies for negation in languages as well as the development of negational adverbs! I guess it's far more common than I appreciated and it adds some more crazy twists to my theory above because, for example, if multiple negative elements can come to be used to mark the negative in a language without being understood as a double negative (eg. French ne...pas, ne...guère, etc.), then maybe there was a double negative like we see in French used in a very, very remote ancestor of Indo-European. In varieties of colloquial Canadian French, pas has already taken over and ne is no longer added (eg. J'sais pas for Je ne sais pas). I also forgot about gems like the use of Italian non which comes straight from Latin adverb non.


  1. Japanese has the "negational verb" kane- > kan- (兼ねる) meaning "can not do". You can even negate the verb: kanenai. This expresses that something is possible.

  2. Hehe, nice try. Japanese does not use "negative verbs" to express the negative. It just uses a suffix -nai as your example shows.

    Plus, Japanese kaneru (兼ねる) is normally translated into English as "to hesitate", not "cannot do". Tweaking a translation to make a verb in one language seem like a verb in the negative in some other language doesn't make it a "negational verb".

    Look again at the Finnish example. There is no equivalent verb like Finnish ei being used solely for "not" in Japanese. In English we use the particle "not" or a contracted suffix -n't. In Japanese, a suffix -nai. Finnish however actually uses a special verb for the negative. This isn't as common in languages.

  3. No offense intended, and I know you are very knowledgeable about many languages, but Japanese is certainly not one of those. It is my native language, and also my area of research.

    True, normal Japanese marks a negative with nai (< naki), zu, nu, and a few others.

    However, you do need to look again at kane- < kan- (兼ねる if you like). It is a verb with the full normal verbal conjugations. In addition to "hesitate", it has many other meanings such as "unite (two or more things together), simultaneous", "to do multiple jobs at the same time", "plan for the future", "extend over a long period of time or space".

    However, specific to this post is the following negative potential usage. It may be translated as "can not". Examples:

    hito no kibou ni soi_kaneru_
    "[PN] can not live up to someone's hopes."

    kore izyou no waribiki wa deki_kanenai_

    "[PN] can not give any further discount."

    handan ga tuki_kaneru_
    "[PN] can not decide [on something]"

    In this usage, the verb kaneru is being attached to another verb. It functions as a negative. You will notice that there is no other negative (such as -nai, -nu, -zu) in these sentences.

    As I also wrote before, you may negate kaneru with the normal negative suffix -nai, ie kanenai. This expresses potential and may be translated as "could". Examples:

    nanika mazui koto ga okoreba subete no sihon wo usinai_kanenai_.

    "Should something bad occur, you could lose all of your capital.".

    kakuheiki no siyou wa, zentikyuu na hakyou wo motarasi_kanenai_.

    "The use of nuclear weapons could cause damage to the entire planet."

    hurui haisen wa torikaenai to, kazi no gen'in ni nari_kanenai_.

    "If old wire is not replaced, it may be the cause of a fire."

    I hope these examples clarify my original post.

    In this usage, kaneru is semantically, not morphologically, a negational verb.

    There are no "tweaks" being done in the translation. If you read Japanese, here is a dictionary defintion:


    Source: Daijirin

    I will refrain from translating it as I do not want to influence your interpretation. Also, it adds nothing to the above examples, which speak for themselves.

  4. No offense taken. In fact, when someone offers interesting facts like you have, I take it as an honour and a welcome gift. However, Japanese grammar isn't like Finnish at all. In Finnish, there is no choice but to use a *verb* to negate a simple sentence.

    Here's an easy test to see whether Japanese really has a "negational verb" like Finnish, as you claim:

    Affirmative ("You come"):
    Finnish: (Sinä) menet.
    Japanese: (Anata wa) kimasu/kuru.

    Negative ("You don't come"):
    Finnish: (Sinä) et mene
    Japanese: (Anata wa) kimasen/konai.

    Now unless you can find a VERB that can entirely REPLACE the negative suffix in Japanese, as in the example above, Japanese doesn't really have negational verbs in this sense. And that's my point.

    The verb kaneru is merely a verb that may be perceived as having negative semantics but that's not the same thing as a verb that is mandatory for indicating simple negation as in Finnish.

    Another language with a true "negational verb" like this is Cantonese where mou MUST be used for the negative completive. Example:

    Affirmative: Ngo hoey-jo "I came."
    Negative: Ngo mou hoey "I didn't come."

    Mou on its own means "to not have, to lack" (eg. Ngo mou soey "I have no cash") and is equivalent to two words in Mandarin: mei you (没有).

    On the other hand, there's no telling what Future Japanese will be like. Maybe when people are flying in hovercraft in the skies of Crystal Tokyo, our descendants will be saying something like "kuru kaneru" instead ;)

    Until then, Japanese doesn't really have a compulsory negational verb like we see in other languages. It still uses suffixes as we see in Turkish.

  5. >Negative ("You don't come"):
    >Finnish: (Sinä) et mene
    >Japanese: (Anata wa)

    > Now unless you can find a VERB
    > that can entirely REPLACE the
    > negative suffix in Japanese,
    > as in the example above,
    > Japanese doesn't really have
    > negational verbs in this sense.
    > And that's my point.

    While it not so common, "kikaneru" is perfectly grammatical and understandable. "ki" is from the verb k- "to come", which may be seen in "kuru", "kimasu", "kimasen" etc. The verb "kaneru" is suffixed to it. Note however that kaneru does not express merely negative, but rather negative potential, ie. "can not". You may suffix kaneru after any verb. Other examples include sikaneru "can not do", dekikaneru "can not do", ikikaneru "can not go", and even arikaneru "is not".

    Just to be clear, kane- is a verb. It conjugates without exception just as a normal verb would: kanemasu, kanenai, kanemasen, kanete etc. Compare with tabe- "to eat": tabemasu, tabenai, tabemasen, tabete etc.

    kaneru is often used in honorific language when the speaker tries to avoid negative language in reverence to the listener. So while grammatically and morphologically non-negative, the semantic meaning conveyed is negative.

    There are other alternatives for expressing negativity: nai (< naki), nu, zu, na, and n (< nu). These are by far the most common and natural. However, all it takes is a single example (kaneru) to show that Japanese does indeed have (at least one) a negational verb. And that is my point.

    > our descendants will be saying
    > something like "kuru kaneru"
    > instead ;)

    That would be "ki kaneru", and you may say it today. Not in meaning "do not come", but rather "can not come". kaneru attaches to the same form that -masu does (called 連用形 in Japanese).

  6. actually, there might have been a two-part negation in PIE: ne(h1)... Hoiu, which before grammaticalization would have meant "not in (the/this/my...) life(time)". the situation in greek, where no trace of ne(h1) is found, would have been comparable to that of modern french (Hoiu > ou [/u/]).

  7. Yes, actually the "two-part negation", as you say, occurs in every language in one way or another. For example, in English we have things like "not... ever". While the Greek negation is fascinating, it doesn't have a strong bearing on the Pre-PIE origins of the particle *ne and negational verbs.

    However... Indo-European didn't just use *ne to negate a sentence but also *meh1 (often written *mē), used in injunctives, basically a negative form of the aorist. Interestingly, if we surmise that this negation is derived from an adverb *meh1 "more, further" (hence "more" < *meh1rós), then it implies an earlier Pre-PIE stage where one said *ne meh1 "not further, no more". Like in French with "ne... pas", the second word would eventually acquire negative semantics on its own and over time *ne would become optional or even become agrammatical in these forms.

    And so, there you would have a potential parallel to French and Greek in (Pre-)PIE.