The development of negation in the languages of Europe

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Linguistics


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Description The aims and objectives of this project were to:

(i) survey the paths of development of negative items in the languages of Europe;

(ii) develop a formal analysis within minimalism of the principal pathways of change;

(iii) construct a language-internal model of change to explain the developments and their directionality in terms of patterns and strategies of child language acquisition of negation, consistent with the historical patterns noted, and to examine the interaction between an acquisitional account of the changes and one involving language contact.

These aims have been achieved largely as envisaged, and the results of the research associated with them is presented in the two volumes of the project monograph, as well as in the various other outputs produced individually and collaboratively by the project members. In various articles, we have demonstrated the paths of change experienced by the languages in which project members have particular expertise: German, Dutch (Breitbarth), Arabic and other Afroasiatic languages (Lucas), Welsh, Breton, Slavonic (Willis) and English (Lucas & Willis). We have provided detailed documentation of Jespersen's Cycle in Arabic, Berber, Breton and Welsh for the first time. In-depth research of this kind, together with collaboration with a range of experts on negation in other European languages (French, Italo-Romance, English, German, Scandinavian, Mordvin), has allowed us to develop a comparative typology of the pathways by which new markers of negation develop. We have shown on the one hand commonalities in the sources of new markers (from minimizers, indefinite pronouns and anaphoric negators 'no!') and, on the other, differences in the speed of the developments and the order in which they take place. We show that, in some cases, Jespersen's Cycle is a multi-stage process and therefore more gradual than previously thought.

Our work on the development of indefinites has shown two major pathways of development crosslinguistically, polarity-neutral indefinite 'anyone' > negative indefinite 'no one' and from free-choice indefinite 'anyone you like' to neutral or negative indefinite 'someone'/'no one'. We have developed an account of these developments based on findings from the literature on child language acquisition, which shows that children first use them exclusively in negative contexts, and only later acquire distributions across the whole range of downward entailing contexts (interrogatives, conditionals). The frequency of negative contexts relative to other downward entailing contexts leads us to expect that children will occasionally fail to acquire the full range of available contexts.

Our work goes beyond previous formal accounts based on specifier-to-head reanalyses and functionalist accounts based on pragmatic extravagance and semantic bleaching. Instead we identify the key factors determining whether the conservative syntax and semantics of items undergoing changes are successfully acquired by children. For instance, the model of Jespersen's Cycle that we have developed argues that innovation of new markers of negation (reanalyses like pas DP > [+neg]AP) are favoured in languages with classes of verb (e.g. verbs of success or compensation) allowing optional extent arguments, and in languages with ambiguous case marking, languages lacking indefinite articles or where there are alternative exponents of the item's original meaning. These themes are explored in various forms across the project's output.

This research combines depth of coverage for individual language histories with the breadth of coverage needed to make crosslinguistic historical generalisations in a methodologically unique and innovative way. More broadly, then, we have demonstrated that generalisation across language histories is possible at a non-superficial level of analysis.
Exploitation Route They could be applied to different languages or used to develop further theoretical models of syntax or language change.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description "Cycles of grammaticalization", Invite from the "Leverhulme International Network, 2007-9. 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust
Department Leverhulme International Network
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Information taken from Final Report
Description "The development of the Welsh Language", Invite from British Academy Research Project, 2008. 
Organisation The British Academy
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Information taken from Final Report
Description DFG Research network "Netzwerk Historische Syntax". 
Organisation German Research Foundation
Country Germany 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Information taken from Final Report