Jespersen's cycle

30 June 2014


In French, people negate sentences by surrounding the verb in the sentence by ne...pas.

Positive Negative
je fais beaucoup de sports
'I do a lot of sports'
je ne fais pas beaucoup de sports
'I don't do a lot of sports'

Few people know that we used to have a similar surrounding construction in English. Languages like Dutch and Danish did too, by the way. The verb-surrounding negation is a stage in a certain kind of language evolution which is known in linguistics as Jespersen's cycle, and which has taken place in a number of different languages.

Stage 1: Stop mumbling

In the first stage of a Jespersen's cycle, you would have a language where the negation is indicated by a preverbal marker, that is, a piece of language in front of the verb of the sentence. This is a very common way for languages to mark negation but, by itself, it is not enough to get a Jespersen's cycle going. The marker also has to have lost some of its power. It is not very salient: often short, unstressed, and its pronunciation may be reduced. In Old French and Old English a short particle ne was put in front of the verb to make negative sentences.

Old French Old English
je ne bouge
'I don't move'
ic ne secge
'I don't say'

Stage 2: Not an inch

The meaning of negation is a rather important one - turning sentences into their contrary and all. So when speakers feel that this element of the sentence lacks salience, they will find ways to reinforce it. In Jespersen's cycle, the solution is to put a second negative element after the verb to form the negation.

Very often this second element is another negative which actually causes double negation. That was for example the case for English not, which originally meant 'nothing'. You could compare it to how speakers of Southern American English or Black Vernacular English say I didn't do nothing or it didn't hurt nobody.

French Middle English
je ne bouge pas
'I don't move'
I ne seye not
'I don't say'

But French pas originally meant - and still means - 'step'. How did such a word become part of the negation? In (too) informal English, people sometimes say I didn't do shit or we don't give a damn. In those sentences, shit and damn aren't negation markers themselves but they do reinforce the negation. Words like these that can be associated with negation are called negative polarity items in linguistics. They don't need to be vulgar: word and inch are also functioning as negative polarity items in sentences like she didn't say a word and you didn't move an inch. In French, the same thing happened to reinforce the weak negation with ne. People started using constructions like:

  • Elle ne mange mie 'She doesn't eat a crumb'
  • Il ne boit goutte 'He doesn't drink a drop'
  • Je ne vois point 'I don't even see a point'
  • Je ne bouge pas 'I don't move a step'

And that is how pas 'step' became part of the negation in French. Only in contexts that had something to do with movement at first, but the use was expanded to sentences with completely different meanings.

Stage 3: When step becomes 'not'

In the third stage of Jespersen's cycle, the surrounding negation is undone. The first, weak negative element is dropped and the entire negation is carried by the element after the verb. In Early Modern English, negative sentences were formed with just not. In colloquial French, ne is also often dropped and pas left to carry the negation on its own. Thus the word for 'step' has in fact become the word for 'not'.

Colloquial French Early Modern Engels
je bouge pas
'I don't move'
I say not
'I don't say'

English has continued to evolve in that most verbs (except auxiliaries like have, may, can) are nowadays negated by means of the negative form of the verb do:

I don't say

So the negation marker has ended up before the verb again, instead of after. Well, not before the finite verb (do), but before the lexical verb carrying the most important meaning (say). As I said before, that is the preferred place in languages worldwide to put the negation marker: right before the verb. If that negation marker should become less salient again in the course of time (say, by sticking it to the auxiliary and reducing it to -n't for example), that could trigger the start of another spin of Jespersen's cycle. And that is why the phenomenon is called Jespersen's cycle and not Jespersen's transition.

So who is Jespersen?

Otto Jespersen was a Danish linguist who - as you might have guessed - decribed the similarities he found in the development of the negation mechanism in different European languages in his book Negation in English and Other Languages, which he wrote back in 1917.

Otto Jespersen Otto Jespersen (1860-1943)

It was not Jespersen himself though who gave his name to this particular pattern of language change that he had discovered. It was fellow linguist and fellow Scandinavian Ă–sten Dahl who gave Jespersen the recognition he deserved for his observations many years later.