Etymology of the French negation

vince

Senior Member
English
Hi everyone,

What is the reason that French people use the word "pas" (English: "step", Spanish/Portuguese: "paso", Italian: "passo") when they negate a sentence?

I don't see the connection between the general negative and the concept of a step.

It is amazing that in modern spoken French, "pas" has become the entire negative, supplanting the nasal sound used to mark the negative in most Indo-European languages. (in other words, "ne" (no) is on its way out).

What are your theories?

I am theorizing that perhaps it evolved from slang replacements for negatives like "ne... point", that perhaps were used to strengthen a negative statment?
 
  • modus.irrealis

    Senior Member
    English, Canada
    The explanation I've seen is that in earlier times it was normal to reinforce the ne with a word that was related to the meaning of the verb and you'd get things like

    je ne marche pas - I don't walk a step
    je ne bois goutte - I don't drink a drop
    je ne mange mie - I don't eat a crumb

    but eventually these words lost their distinctive meaning and simply became markers of negation, and then pas and point drove out the other possibilities (although I don't know why those two won out). Something similar must have happened with ne...personne and ne...rien except that those constructions kept their specific meaning.

    I found this document (in French) that has a section on the history of French negation.
     

    Joannes

    Senior Member
    Belgian Dutch
    Yes, that’s it. The evolution we are seeing now (dropping ne, only using pas) is still part of a development described as Jespersen’s cycle, and it’s a phase languages like English and Dutch have gone through already.

    Typically languages start off with a preverbal negation marker, which is typologically the preferred place. This is stage 1:

    Some Older French :): je ne bouge ‘I don’t move’; Old English: ic ne secge ‘I don’t say’; Non-attested, invented, Old Dutch: dat en mag ‘that may not’


    At some point this marker becomes phonetically less salient. Not salient enough, in fact, to support a heavy semantic load like negation. So the negation gets strengthened by another element, typically surrounding the verb: NEG V NEG. That element may be a negative polarity item like in French (and in Colloquial English for example: I didn’t do sh*t), or a double negation, like in English and Dutch (not and niet originally meant 'nothing' < na-wiht ‘NEG-thing’. Of course, at first these strengthening elements often needed some specific context, like movement in French, but basically that’s stage 2:

    Present-day French: je ne bouge pas; Middle English: I ne seye not; Middle Dutch: dat en mach niet


    In the completing third phase, the less prominent original negation particle is left out, and the more salient new particle carries the negation on its own.

    Colloquial / Future French: je bouge pas; Later Middle English: I say not; Present-day Dutch: dat mag niet


    As you can see, Dutch and English completed the cycle, as German and Danish did too, by the way. French is getting there. English is a phase ahead in that the negation marker has moved up to a preverbal position again (at least preverbal to the lexical verb!). As a clitic on auxiliaries (-n’t), the negation marker in English is often not very salient anymore, again, which could trigger the beginning of a new Jespersen’s cycle. But the periphrastic construction seems to hold.
     

    micilin

    New Member
    irish
    I dont know if anyone can help be but I am looking for the history of the word pas. The previous threads did have a link which was was not able to open.
    The explanation by modus seems to be what I remember having learned at school. I think I remember the 'commoners' would hear the aristrocracy saying
    things like 'je ne marche pas' and this idea of not even taking a step made its way to be being part of general negation. If anyone can give me a clearer explanation I would be much obliged!
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    The old medieval French first used the Latin negation non with verbs, but being in unstressed position the word turned into the form nen, then ne in front of a consonant and n' in front of a vowel. Accordingly the negation became so weak that it was not heard clearly or could'nt be even heard at all ( in on n'avait, for example ) ; so very early it had to be strengthened by a substantive placed after the verb , more rarely in front of the verb as long as subject pronouns were not essential as in Point n'en veux, or Point n'est besoin which is still used .
    As modus.irrealis says, several words, first semantically congruent with the verb and most of them designating something tiny, were used as mere direct objects (it's impossible to add another direct object after je ne bois goutte in the same way as after Je ne vois rien), then they were "grammaticalised" , merging into the original negation and loosing their own meaning.
    So "pas" comes from Latin "passus", a step and "point" from "punctum", a small parcel of land.
    Further explanations can be read here ( chiefly 1.4 and 3.1 ) .

    To confirm Joaness's explanations I'd like to point out that non-I.E languages belonging to various families also use the structure Neg+Verb+ Neg : ma+ Verb +Sh (sh coming from shay meaning thing ) in some Arabic "dialects" ; ma+Verb+bu" in Burmese ; mana+Verb+chu in Quechua.

    http://forum.wordreference.com/member.php?u=54614
     

    itka

    Senior Member
    français
    You'll find here a link to wiki.
    I like the funny way you talk about "future French" !:D
    Colloquial / Future French: je bouge pas;
    ...but I'm not sure to be convinced.
    That's right, in colloquial French, when speaking, you can drop the second part of the negation.
    But they are cases in which you use only the first part of it (ne), and when you write, it's not allowed to use the second part alone...

    Then, I have another reason why I'm not sure it will be the evolution.

    As you said, in all the Indo-European languages, the negation has a "n" as a stem and this "n" does persist in the adverb "non"...
    On the other hand, we tend to speak more and more English in Europe and I don't feel like French could evolve alone far from other languages...
     
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    Joannes

    Senior Member
    Belgian Dutch
    But they are cases in which you use only the first part of it (ne)
    Yes, I've always thought those are interesting 'exceptions'. But I've always felt those expressions to be rather marginal and of a somewhat higher register. What do you think?

    As you said, in all the Indo-European languages, the negation has a "n" as a stem and this "n" does persist in the adverb "non"...
    On the other hand, we tend to speak more and more English in Europe and I don't feel like French could evolve alone far from other languages...
    Hm. I really don't see the problem to be honest. Just because you don't have a negation with an /n/ you have evolved far from other languages? And, well, still, so what, why would that be a problem? And who would prevent it from happening for what reason?

    I think a good reason why dropping ne will not be the eventual evolution (at least not any time soon), is because of something else you mentioned: written language (and of course the fact that people focus too much on it).
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, I've always thought those are interesting 'exceptions'. But I've always felt those expressions to be rather marginal and of a somewhat higher register. What do you think?
    Agreed.

    I think a good reason why dropping ne will not be the eventual evolution (at least not any time soon), is because of something else you mentioned: written language (and of course the fact that people focus too much on it).
    In a society with a high level of literacy the written language does tend to operate as a break on the spoken language. I do not think that the omission of ne can be said to be a universal feature of spoken French, unlike, say, the use of the passé composé for the passé historique, but rather a feature of casual spoken French.
     
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