THE HISTORY OF NEGATION IN FRENCH
Dressler Lecture Series
Friday, April 7
S.W. Mudd Building, Room 327
500 West 120th Street (Corner of Amsterdam Avenue)
Subway: 116th Street (#1 train)
Angus Grieve Smith
Columbia University Information technology
The basic outlines of the history of negation in French are well-known: that in Old French sentences were negated with ne alone; that ne began to be supplemented with pas, which also means “step”; that recently people have been using pas by itself to negate sentences. This process is the best-known example of Jespersen’s Cycle, which has also produced English not, German nicht and Italian mica.
Looking more closely at this process through a corpus of theatrical texts, we find some intriguing details. The use of ne alone or ne … pas conveyed a semantic and pragmatic distinction in Old French, which appears to have been lost around the sixteenth century. From the sixteenth through twentieth centuries, the proportion of sentence negations using ne … pas rises in a classic S-curve shape. The shift from ne alone to ne … pas did not proceed at random, but in a definite pattern defined by the entrenchment of high-frequency patterns.
Altogether, these events provide support for usage-based theories of language change. In particular, these theories model how language users forget which construction to use and fall back on the one that they remember as being more general. Patterns that are used more frequently are then more resistant to this kind of change.