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Summary Details

Query:   Initial Clausal Negation
Author:  Jan Lindström
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Syntax

Summary:   Regarding Query:

Dear Linguists

Here is a summary on the replies I received to my query on initial clausal
negation, sent to the list in May 4 (sorry for the delay!). I am interested
in mapping the existence of initial clausal negation in different
languages, since this phenomenon is especially frequent in my own language,
Finland Swedish. As mentioned in the original query, the negating adverb
“inte” (‘not’) can initiate a clause with a declarative or an interrogative

1. INTE var det något fel på di där tacosarna.
not was it any fault on those tacos
i.e. There was not fault with those tacos. (They were okay)

2. INTE behöver jag ta skorna bort?
not need I take shoes away
i.e. I do not need to take off my shoes? (Don't I need...)

This word order, sometimes referred to as the topicalization of the
negative operator, is possible also in standard Swedish but not so common.
In an areal perspective it is interesting that the negating verb often
stands in initial clausal position in Finnish, which might have had an
effect on Finland Swedish (in its spoken form). Of course, it is an another
issue what in practice conditions the clause initial placement of negation;
clearly, it is one variant position and has a pragmatic value that in some
respects contrasts with the standard placement of negation in post-verbal
clausal position. However, I am not going into the semantics or pragmatics

Here is a brief survey of the replies concerning other languages; possible
misunderstandings are my responsibility. My thanks go to the persons who
helpfully provided the information, a list of the contributors and the
languages they informed about is at the end of this text. The information
concerns the Scandinavian languages, English, Celtic, Bulgarian, Greek and
a few general references.

I. Scandinavian

Ken Ramshøj Christensen has studied clausal negation in Scandinavian in his
PhD within the framework of minimalist syntactic theory. According to his
data, initial clausal negation occurs, apart from Swedish, also in Faroese,
Icelandic and Norwegian:

Fa: Ikki ljóðar tað væl.
Not sounds that well

Ic: Ekki leika stelpurnar sér að dúkkum.
Not play girls.the SELF.DAT with dolls.DAT

No: Ikkje var det sett opp noko varsel om denne faren.
Not were it put up any warning about this danger.the

Sw: Inte tänker han sälja bilen i vår.
Not thinks he sell car.the in spring

Modern Danish does not allow the initial position for the negating adverb.
There may be some variation in acceptability also in Norwegian, as pointed
out by Gisle Andersen. The initial position is most felicitous in additive
negated lists, i.e. in a series of (emphatic) negative clauses:

Ikke var det noe feil med de der tacoene. Ikke var vinen dårlig heller.
Jeg forstår ikke hva han klager over!
‘Not was there any fault with those tacos. Not was the wine bad either.
I don’t understand what you complain about!’

II. English

As we can understand from the translations of the above examples,
negative-operator-first word order is not good modern English. It was
pointed out, however, that such a word order was possible in Old English,
involving inversion of the subject and the verb (like still in present day

Ne com he.
'Not came he', i.e., 'He didn't come'

Also, modern English may have certain negative adverbs in a related
construction type:

Never have I seen the Eiffel Tower.
At no time did Mary tell him.
Never did he go there.
Nowhere was he to be found.
(In) No way did Mary do that.

But strictly speaking I am not concerned with instances of this type but
only with the initial clausal placement of the standard negating operator.

III. Celtic

Initial clausal negation is possibly also a Celtic phenomenon. It can be
found in Ulster Irish

Ní (chan) fhaca tú mo nighean.
neg see [past] you my daughter
`You didn't see my daughter.'

Níor (cha-r) ól tú a gcuid uisce.
neg-past drank you their portion water
` You didn't drink their water.'

as well as in Welsh (see references below).

IV. Bulgarian

Also Bulgarian seems to have initial clausal negation, as informed by Ljuba
Veselovina. The use is possibly pragmatically/stylistically conditioned.

ne iska-m da rabotja dnes
not to today
I do not want to work today

However, standard negation in Bulgarian is pre-verbal but not necessarily
clause initial:

Dnes ne iska-m da rabotja
today not want-1,sg.pres to
Today I do not want to work

V. Greek

For spoken Cypriot Greek it is noted that , oi na+V regularly modifies the main
clause, and can thus be regarded as an initial clausal negator. In such
cases, oi na+V seems to have the function of ‘request not to X’:

Αλλά να μιλάς Κυπριακά, όι να βάλεις τα επίσημά σου.
“But you should speak Cypriot, don't speak formally.”

The negator-first clause is apparently a response to a previous statement.

There are also two sentential (VP-internal) negations in Greek, 'min' and
'd(h)en' (English

VI. General

There are interesting general surveys on clausal negation that also concern
the clause initial variant. Laurence Horn (1989) discusses the rarity of
initial (clause-scope) negation in his book “A Natural History of
Negation”. Of general interest concerning negation in the laguages of the
world are the works by Östen Dahl and Matti Miestamo.


Borsley and Jones. 2005. ''Welsh Negation and Grammatical Theory''.
Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Christensen, Ken Ramshøj. 2003. ''On the Synchronic and Diachronic Status
of the Negative Adverbial ikke/not''. Working Papers in Scandinavian
Syntax, WPSS 72, 1-53, December 2003.

Christensen, Ken Ramshøj. Interface. Negation – Syntax- Brain. PhD.
Department of English, University of Aarhus; The MR Research Centre, Aarhus
University Hospital. Download at

Dahl, Östen. 1979. Typology of sentence negation. Linguistics 17, 79-106.

Horn, Laurence. 1989. “A Natural History of Negation”. University of
Chicago Press, reissued 2001 by CSLI).

Lawler, John. 1971. “Any Questions?” . Papers from the 7th Regional
Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS 7).

Miestamo, Matti. 2003. Clausal Negation: A Typological Study. Ph.D.
Dissertation, University of Helsinki.

Miestamo, Matti. 2005. Standard Negation: The Negation of Declarative
Verbal Main Clauses in a Typological Perspective. Empirical Approaches to
Language Typology 31. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


Gisle Andersen (Norwegian)
Ken Ramshøj Christensen (Scandinavian)
Laurence Horn (General)
John Lawler (English)
Bob Morris Jones (Welsh)
Vincenzo Moscati (Irish)
Nina Nellemann Rasmussen (Danish)
Graham Shorrocks (English)
Marina Terkourafi (Greek)
Ljuba Veselinova (Bulgarian, general)

LL Issue: 17.2359
Date Posted: 20-Aug-2006
Original Query: Read original query


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