In late spring and summer, when the days are long, I am often overwhelmed by the desire to write something about the shortest words in Modern English. At one time, I discussed if, of, and, in, both, and (very briefly) yet. See the posts for 2 August and 9 August 2017, and 27 July 2022. The reason I am seized by such an unnatural desire is the almost total obscurity of such words. Open the most detailed etymological dictionary of any Indo-European language and look up in, on, at, to, of, and their cognates: you will find long lists of short forms but no origin. Some pronouns, especially she, have been discussed many times, but the discussion invariably turns round their later history.
Now take any of our negations. All over the Indo-European map, the main word begins with n. What is in this sound that invites denial, refutation, or repulsion? Unable to answer this question, I decided to turn to some negative prefixes and began with the word ignoble. Latin nōbilis meant “(well-)known, excellent, highborn” (the range of meanings was broader than in the Modern English adjective noble), while īgnōbilis referred to people of low birth, undistinguished, and insignificant. Note that the first vowel of the Latin word is long (ī). Once, the prefix was the familiar in: compare such adjectives as inadequate, inappropriate, inefficient, and so forth. The original form must have been in-gnōbilis (theroot in it is the same as in gnostic), but in the heavy group ingn-, the first n was lost, and the preceding vowel, by way of compensation (as it were) lengthened. Or perhaps the heavy cluster ngn with its two n’s flanking g was dissimilated. The same sound change accounts of the form of ignorant and ignominious.
In other positions, the process of assimilation is so obvious that we need no reference to historical phonetics to recognize the origins. Such transparent forms are illegal, improper, and irreversible, as opposed to indifferent. Many Latin words ended up in Middle English by way of Old French. That is why enemy (from Old French enemi, with one n) begins with en-, while inimical “hostile” looks perfectly Latin. (An enemy is not an amicus “friend.”)
The sound of n prevails in negations. English once had ne-, corresponding to Latin nē, as in nefarious (from ne– + the root of fas “rejection of divine command”) and in Nemo, familiar thanks to the famous captain: it goes back to nē + homo “nobody.” (Those who remember Jules Verne’s book The Mysterious Island know that the real name of this fictious character was Prince Dakkar.) Being so short, ne tended to attract all kinds of barnacles. Thus, in the earliest Romance languages, p and c clung to it. We can still see the slightly transformed remnant of that c in negate, neglect, and negotiate. The syllable neg- goes back to nec-, and the roots of the aforementioned verbs can be seen in Latin aio “I say,” lego “I gather,” and otium “leisure, ease.” The consonant g is an insertion.
At present, the English negation is no, from nā, an old contraction of ne + ā As though English had too few negations, it borrowed nei “nay” from Scandinavian. There, it was a compound made up of ne + ei “ay, ever,” that is, a reinforced negation. German nein, though it means “no,” corresponds exactly to English no one or none. The word not is a later form of naught, which is the sum of ne and aught (as in for aught I know). Likewise, Russian net “no” is the sum of ne and a short phrase meaning “is here.” The more synonyms we have, the more nuanced our speech becomes and the harder it becomes to make small distinctions. Compare you are not a man and you are no man.
A curious word is German kein, used attributively, for example, kein Mann “no man.” It emerged as nih-ein, occurred also in the form (ni) dehein (with the obscure syllable de-), and meant “some,” rather than “no.” Today, it means only “no,” and if we want to say “no book,” the only way to say it in German is kein Buch. Its k-, from h-, has not been explained to everybody’s satisfaction. Very short words have to fight for their existence and sometimes change according to puzzling rules.
We will probably never know why the sound of n allied itself to negations in Indo-European, and this is a pity, for there must have been something in this consonant that suggested the opposite of unity, attraction, and agreement. Reference to sound symbolism fails us here, as it always does when linguists try to see a direct connection between the articulation of consonants and the meaning of words in which they occur.
However, we observe that n is not the only actor in the game of negation. In Old Icelandic, the adverb ei meant “ever.” English aye (“yes; ever”; cf. the ayes have it) is a borrowing of it. But the other ay meant “not” (thus, simply a verbal sign of reinforcement?) and as a rule, occurred with the particle –gi. Eigi became ekki and, like eigi, stayed in the language. The universally used Scandinavian negation (ei, ej) corresponds exactly to Finnish and Estonian ei, and as could be expected, two hypotheses compete. One defends the Finno-Ugric origin of the Finnish and Estonian word; the other equates it with the Germanic one. In any case, the coincidence is remarkable.
Suffix-like words are called enclitics. Germanic, so rich in negative words, also had several negative enclitics. One of them was –gi, discussed briefly above. It varied with –ki, but the meanings often fluctuated between negative and indefinite, which makes sense, because the line between negation and doubt and even between strict and qualified negation is easy to cross. (Hence the problem of ne and ni in Russian. It drives learners crazy, because those two unstressed words sound very much alike. An even worse horror is that ne and ni are sometimes spelled together with the word they modify, and sometimes separately.)
In Germanic, negative enclitics were rather numerous. Sometimes they corresponded to Latin –que, which meant “and”(!). They abounded in the oldest stages of the language, and poets enjoyed them. One such short particle was Old Icelandic at. Its etymology, cited in dictionaries, carries little conviction, and here we may ignore it and only note that the poets of that period loved multiplying negations. For example, né (é designated a long vowel) might occur before the verb and -at at the end of it. Incidentally, –at also has analogs in Finno-Ugric. The rule prevalent in Modern Germanic that requires only one negation in a sentence is relatively late, and those people who still say I don’t know nothin’ are unaware of the norm imposed on the Standard. Incidentally, in Russian, the English sentence I don’t know anyone anywhere, if translated literally, would sound as “I don’t know nobody nowhere.” Obviously, the more, the better.
Our tour of negations in this blog post was a mere introduction to a complicated subject. The great question is how speakers learned to negate their statements, and we wonder at the variety of the means they invented. We also wonder why the sound n- figures so prominently in the process. Apparently our statement “no means no” had many nuances at the dawn of civilization.
Featured image by cottonbro studio, via Pexels (public domain)