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University of Cambridge linguists have pieced together the curious evolving history of the word 'not' across the languages of Europe. In doing so, they suggest that overuse of words such as 'literally' may be a natural linguistic development. Cycles of usage such as that seen in negation appear to be a normal part of language development. Now, research at the University of Cambridge has traced how and why the words used to express negation have changed in the languages of Europe and the Mediterranean over the past millennium. Led by Dr David Willis at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, the study is the first comprehensive attempt to look for patterns across such a breadth of languages and over such a timescale.

It has also involved the first systematic analysis of the history of negation in languages such as Arabic, Berber, Breton and Welsh. Not only does the new research on the history of 'not' provide a better insight into how languages evolve, and indeed provides a marker of the stage at which a language has reached in the evolution of negation, but it also sheds light on how emphatic words such as 'literally' creep into common parlance.

It was at the turn of the 20th century that a linguist named Otto Jespersen discovered a cyclical pattern in how languages express negation. Put simply, the cycle moves from a single word meaning not, placed before the verb stage I , through a stage in which two words are used either side of the verb stage II and then back to a single word after the verb stage III.

David Willis, Christopher Lucas, and Anne Breitbarth

In due course, the emphatic word is used so frequently that it becomes the only word needed to express the negative view and the first word drops away. Many different languages have independently gone through this cyclical evolution, and have done so at vastly different times in history. Take French, for example. With this conservative influence, it will be interesting to see whether the language will complete the cycle or stay indefinitely at stage II.

The history of negation in the languages of Europe and the Mediterranean

English, on the other hand, had finished its cycle by the midth century, moving from the Old English ne before the verb, to the strengthened ne…nawit nothing in Middle English, to the simplified, post-verbial not of Early Modern English. And some languages completed the cycle even earlier, such as Scandinavian, which had completed the cycle before written records began, as shown through the reconstructed history of the language.


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Other languages such as Spanish or Russian have yet to begin the cycle. The results have helped us draw out a new understanding of how language contact, language acquisition, and psychological and social factors might influence the evolution of language in the past and in the future. To complete the study, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is resulting in a series of publications including a two-volume book in , vast amounts of written texts were analysed for examples of stage I, II or III expressions.

Up to a thousand years of linguistic history were interrogated to observe Jespersen cycles in some languages. Fieldwork interviews were used to resolve how negation is used in spoken Arabic, where the written form is distinct and conservative. At the transition between stage I and II, a second word starts being used as a means to emphasise the negative.

When it is used more frequently, the language progresses to a stage when the first word is dropped, and stage III is complete. For Welsh, the researchers identified the emphatic use of the negative by comparing Welsh and English versions of the Bible. In the 16th and 17th centuries, usage went up enormously. Welsh then remained in stage II for about years and then moved into stage III, dropping the use of ni around In some cases, the researchers can point towards one language influencing the development of a nearby language. One question the study has considered is how a word that is used emphatically to strengthen certain phrases becomes mainstream.

An example of bleaching that many will be aware of today is the linguistic misuse of the word literally as in 'I literally ran all the way'. This may well impede a natural linguistic development of just the same kind that we have seen time and time again for the development of negation in different languages across the whole of the last millennium.

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  8. Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free! When equal coverage leads to uneven results. It's now in the dictionary. You all would not have guessed some of these. Some imitative words are more surprising than others. How to use a word that literally drives some people nuts. The awkward case of 'his or her'. Which of these things doesn't belong? Test your vocabulary with our question quiz! Definition of negation. Examples of negation in a Sentence issued specific negations of all of the charges against her a ruling by the Supreme Court that many regarded as a negation of the basic right of privacy.

    Negation and indefinites in Late Latin

    Recent Examples on the Web The Cubs and Maddon agreed at the general managers meetings in November to table negations over a contract extension until after the season. His art still haunts," 5 July The fascist negation of religious truths, by which all political choices are to be judged, has found countless disciples in progressive circles. We Can't 'Decentralize' Everything! First Known Use of negation 15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a.

    Learn More about negation.

    Negation English Grammar

    Resources for negation Time Traveler! Explore the year a word first appeared. From the Editors at Merriam-Webster. Dictionary Entries near negation neg negara negate negation negationist negativate negative.