Jespersen's Cycle

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An illustration of Jespersen's cycle in French

Jespersen's Cycle (JC) is a series of processes in historical linguistics, which describe the historical development of the expression of negation in a variety of languages, from a simple pre-verbal marker of negation, through a discontinuous marker (elements both before and after the verb) and in some cases through subsequent loss of the original pre-verbal marker. The term originated in the 1979 publication Typology of Sentence Negation by Swedish linguist Östen Dahl.[1] Dahl coined it in recognition of the pioneering work of Otto Jespersen in identifying this pattern of language change.[2]


The linguist Otto Jespersen began his book Negation in English and Other Languages[2] with the words:

The history of negative expressions in various languages makes us witness the following curious fluctuation: the original negative adverb is first weakened, then found insufficient and therefore strengthened, generally through some additional word, and this in turn may be felt as the negative proper and may then in the course of time be subject to the same development as the original word.

The process has since been described for many languages in many different families, and is particularly noticeable in languages which are currently at stage II (both the original and the additional word obligatory) such as French, Welsh, and some dialects of Arabic and Berber.

The fact that different languages can be seen to be in different stages of the process, and that sometimes, as Jespersen says, the whole process can begin again after renewal, prompted Dahl to name the process "Jespersen's cycle". The observation was however made earlier, most noticeably by Antoine Meillet, who used the term 'spiral'.

The process[edit]

There are three stages, labelled I, II and III:

In Stage I, negation is expressed by a single pre-verbal element:

(Examples from different periods of French, all from [3]):

jeo ne  dis. (Old French)
I   NEG say
'I do not say'

In Stage II both a preverbal and a postverbal element are obligatory:

je ne  dis  pas. (modern standard French)
I  NEG say  NEG
'I do not say'

In Stage III the original preverbal element becomes optional or is lost altogether:

je dis pas. (modern colloquial French)
I  say NEG
'I do not say'


French is well known to use a bipartite negative, e.g. "Je ne sais pas" = "I don't know", lit. "I not know not". Welsh has a very similar pattern, "Ni wn i ddim, literally "Not know I nothing". In both languages, the colloquial register is at a more advanced stage in the cycle, and the first part (ne or ni(d)) is very frequently omitted. In formal Welsh registers, by contrast, ni(d) tends to be used without ddim. This is not true of formal registers of modern French, but the use of ne on its own survives in certain set expressions (e.g. n'importe quoi: "no matter what/anything") and after certain verbs (e.g. "Elle ne cesse de parler": "She doesn't stop talking").

English too passed through Jespersen's cycle early in its history: for example "I didn't see" would be expressed in Old English as ic ne seah, then strengthened with the word nawiht "no thing" as Middle English "I ne saugh nawiht", finally leading to Early Modern English "I saw not".[4][5] The same development occurred in the other Germanic languages such as German and Dutch, which produced their respective postposed negative particles nicht and niet, first duplicating and eventually ousting the original preposed negative particle ne / ni.[6] English’s do-support and contraction of “do not” to “don’t” in colloquial speech could be argued as moving English back toward Stage I of Jespersen’s Cycle—“I didn’t see”.

Central Atlas Tamazight, a Berber language spoken principally in Central Morocco, uses a bipartite negative construction (e.g. /uriffiɣ ʃa/ 'he didn't go out' — the underlined elements together convey the negative) which apparently was modeled after proximate Arabic varieties.[3][7]

The Chamic languages, spoken in parts of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hainan, may also be undergoing Jespersen's cycle.[8]

Italian and the various Italian regional languages are also undergoing a similar transformation, where even all three stages can be seen in action at once: The standard language is (still?) generally at stage I, with, e. g., Non gliel'ho detto (I haven't told him/her). This can become Non gliel'ho mica detto colloquially (stage II) and also (stage III) Gliel'ho mica detto (sub-standard) or Mica gliel'ho detto (colloquial), mica originally meaning "in the least". In Western Lombard, the archaic no l'hoo vist (I haven't seen him/it) has since long become l'hoo minga vist or l'hoo vist no with no change in meaning.


  1. ^ Dahl, Östen (1979). "Typology of Sentence Negation". Linguistics. 17: 79–106. doi:10.1515/ling.1979.17.1-2.79. 
  2. ^ a b Jespersen, Otto (1917). Negation in English and Other Languages. Copenhagen: Høst. 
  3. ^ a b Lucas, Christopher (2007). "Jespersen's Cycle in Arabic and Berber". Transactions of the Philological Society. 105: 398–431. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968x.2007.00189.x. 
  4. ^ Kastovsky, Dieter. 1991. Historical English syntax. P. 452
  5. ^ Van Gelderen, Elly. 2006. A history of the English language. P. 130
  6. ^ Jäger, Agnes. History of German negation. P. 103–104
  7. ^ "Contact-induced grammatical change: towards an explicit account" (PDF). [permanent dead link] (389 KB), p. 2.
  8. ^ "Bipartite negatives in Chamic" (PDF).  (11.5 MB), p. 313.


  • Lucas, Christopher (2007). "Jespersen's Cycle in Arabic and Berber". Transactions of the Philological Society. 105: 398–431. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968x.2007.00189.x.
  • van der Auwera, Johan. (2009) 'The Jespersen Cycles', Cyclical change, ed. by E. van Gelderen. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 35-71.