Negation in English and other languages (Otto Jespersen, 1917)

Negation_in_English_and_Other_Languages pdf download ebook free

This book is actually very advanced for its age. it contains lots of stuff of interest to logicians and linguists, even those reading it today. the thing that annoys me the most is the poor quality of the scan making reading a hazzle. second to that comes the untranslated quotes from other languages (german, french, greek, latin, danish altho DA isnt a problem for me ofc). third but small annoyance is the difficulty of the reference system used.



About the existence of double negatives


My own pet theory is that neither is right; logically one

negative suffices, but two or three in the same sentence cannot

be termed illogical; they are simply a redundancy, that

may be superfluous from a stylistic point of view, just as any

repetition in a positive sentence (every and any, always and

on all occasions, etc.), but is otherwise unobjectionable. Double

negation arises because under the influence of a strong feeling

the two tendencies specified above, one to attract the negative

to the verb as nexal negative, and the other to prefix it to

some other word capable of receiving this element, may both

be gratified in the same sentence. But repeated negation

seems to become a habitual phenomenon only in those languages

in which the ordinary negative element is comparatively

small in regard to phonetic bulk, as ne and n- in OE and Russian,

en and n- in MHG., on (sounded u) in Greek, s- or n- in

Magyar. The insignificance of these elements makes it desirable

to multiply them so as to prevent their being overlooked.

Hence also the comparative infrequency of this repetition in

English and German, after the fuller negatives not and nicht

have been thoroughly established – though, as already stated,

the logic of the schools and the influence of Latin has had some

share in restricting the tendency to this particular kind of

redundancy. It might, however, finally be said that it requires

greater mental energy to content oneself, with one negative,

which has to be remembered during the whole length of

the utterance both by the speaker and by the hearer, than

to repeat the negative idea (and have it repeated) whenever

an occasion offers itself.


seems legit



Jespersen came close to one of the gricean maxims


If we say, according to the general rule, that “not four” means “different from four”, this should be taken with a certain quahfication, for in practice it generally means, not whatever is above or below 4 in the scale, but only what is below 4. thus less than 4, something between 4 and 0, just as *”not everything” means something between everything and nothing (and as “not good” means ‘inferior’, but does not comprise ‘excellent’). Thus in “He does not read three books in a year” | “the hill is not two hundred feet high” | “his income is not 200 a year” | “he does not see her once a week”.


This explains how ‘not one’ comes to be the natural expression in many languages for ‘none, no’, and ‘not one thing’ for ‘nothing’, as in OE nan = ne-an, whence none and no, OE nanthing, whence nothing, ON eingi, whence Dan. ingen. G. k-ein etc. Cf. also Tennyson 261 That not one life shall be destroy ‘d . . . That not a worm is cloven in vain; see also p. 49. In French similarly: Pas im bruit n’interrompit le silence, etc.


When not + a numeral is exceptionally to be taken as ‘more than’, the numeral has to be strongly stressed, and generally to be followed by a more exact indication: “the hill is not ‘two hundred feet high, but three hundred” | “his income is not 200, but at least 300 a year” | Locke S. 321 Not one invention, but fifty – from a corkscrew to a machinegun | Defoe R. 342 not once, but two or three times | Gissing R. 149 books that well merit to be pored over, not once but many a time I Benson A. 220 he would bend to kiss her, not once, not once only.


But not once or twice always means ‘several times’, as in Tennyson 220 Not once or twice in our rough island-story The path of duty was the way to glory.


In Russian, on the other hand, ne raz ‘not (a) time’, thus really without a numeral, means ‘several times, sometimes’ and in the same way ne odin ‘not one’ means ‘more than one’; corresponding phenomena are found in other languages as well, see a valuable little article by Schuchardt, An Aug. Leskien zum 4. juli1894 (privately printed).He rightly con- nects this with the use in Russian of the stronger negative ni with a numeral to signify ‘lessthan’ : ni odin ‘not even one’.


hat the exact import is of a negative quantitative indication may in some instances depend on what is expected, or what is the direction of thought in each case. While the two sentences “he spends ” 200 a year” and “he lives on 200 a year” are practically synonymous, everything is changed if we add not: “he doesn’t spend 200 a year” means ‘less than’; “he doesn’t live on 200 a year” means ‘more than’; because in the former case we expect an indication of a maximum, and in the latter of a minimum.


and actually the discussion continues from here. it is worth reading.


also normal formulations of the maxim doesnt take account of the fenomenon pointed out in the last paragraf.



Negative words or formulas may in some combinations be used in such a way that the negative force is almost vanishing. There is scarcely any difference between questions like “Will you have a glass of beer ?” and “Won’t you have a glass of beer ?”, because the real question is “Will you, or will you not, have. . . . ” ; therefore in offering one a glass both formulas may be employed indifferently, though a marked tone of surprise can make the two sentences into distinct contrasts: “Will you have a glass of beer ?” then coming to mean ‘I am surprised at your wanting it’, and “Won’t you have a glass of beer ?” the reverse. (In this case really is often added.)


In the same way in Dan. “Vil De ha et glas 0I ?” and “Vil De ikke ha et glas 0I ?” A Dutch lady once told me how surprised she was at first in Denmark at having questions like “Vil De ikke raekke mig saltet ?” asked her at table in a boarding- house; she took the ikke literally and did not pass the salt. Ikke is also used in indirect (reported) questions, as in Faber Stegek. 28 saa bar madammen bedt Giovanni, om han ikke vil passe lidt paa barnet.


true, it dosent make a lot of sense. the <ikke> / <not> almost has no meaning. it seems to create a kind of ”please” meaning in the utterance.



In writing the forms in nH make their appearance about 1660 and are already frequent in Dryden’s, Congreve’s, and Farquhar’s comedies. Addison in the Spectator nr. 135 speaks of mayn’t, canH, sha’nH, won’t, and the like as having “very much imtxmed our language, and clogged it with consonants”. Swift also (inthe Tatler nr. 230)brands as examples of “the continual corruption of our English tongue” such forms as coii’dn’t, ha’n’t, can’t, shan’t; but nevertheless he uses some of them very often in his Journal to Stella.






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