Registering for my fall classes this morning got me thinking about what it is that I really love about learning a foreign language. It’s certainly not conjugating the pluperfect of the subjunctive mood! Instead, it’s linguistics and etymology: how we say the things we say, and why it is we say them that way. Today’s musing:


For anyone with even a basic knowledge of French, “pas” is a pretty easy word. It means “not” … right? Well, I’ll get back to that in a minute but, more importantly for now, “pas” also means “step” — as in the motion we make when we place one foot in front of the other. Hence, we have the expression “faux pas” — one that we’ve adopted directly into English — meaning a mistake or, more precisely, a “false step.” So, how exactly did a word that means “step” also come to be the most common word in French to mean “not”?

I.   Veni, Vidi, Vici

French is a Romance language, so our little story begins with Latin. Latin doesn’t use subject pronouns; it uses conjugated verbs to express both the action and the subject that is performing the action. For example, “I say” in Latin is simply “dico.” Originally, the Romans formed the negative by adding “ne” before the verb. Thus, “I don’t say” was originally “ne dico.” The Romans eventually found “ne” too weak, so they added “oenum” (meaning “thing”) to the negative form, so that “I don’t say” became “ne oenum dico” — literally “I don’t say anything” or “I say nothing.” With the passage of time, however, “ne oenum” evolved into “non,” which subsequently found its way into Old French. Further accentuation over time transformed “non” into “nen” and eventually right back into “ne.” Returning to our illustrative example, the Old French version of “I don’t say” or, in Modern French, “je ne dis pas,” was “jeo ne di.”

II.   Being REALLY Negative

So, getting back to the question at hand, if they said “jeo ne di” in Old French, where did the modern “pas” come from? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s not really the “pas” that forms the negative in standard French; it’s the “ne” that comes before the verb (like in Latin and Old French). (I won’t address the “ne explétif” here. That’s another story.) Unlike in Latin, however, the “ne” in French occupies an unstressed position between the subject and the verb in the spoken language and, in some phrases, it is hardly discernable at all (for example, “on n’avait” versus “on avait” ). As the Old French “nen” and “ne” became more and more phonetically de-accentuated over time, the French added other adverbs to reinforce the negation, as well as to clarify the sense of the negation:

je ne sais rien : I know nothing
je ne veux que (…) : I want nothing except (…)
je ne chante jamais : I never sing
je ne crois plus : I don’t believe any longer
je ne connais personne : I know no one
je ne vais nulle part : I don’t go anywhere
je n’ai aucun : I don’t have (a single) one
je ne parle guère : I don’t speak a lot

They also added certain other negative adverbs, each with a very  particular, verb-specific sense. Originally, these adverbs were object nouns, but they eventually became “grammaticalized,” merging into the negative meaning of the “ne” adverb and losing their own distinct grammatical function.

je ne bois goutte : I don’t drink (a drop) → I don’t drink
je ne parle mot : I don’t speak (a word) → I don’t speak
je ne vois point : I don’t see (a point) → I don’t see
je ne mange mie : I don’t eat (a crumb)  → I don’t eat

And, of course, there was the star of today’s show …

je ne marche pas : I don’t walk (a step) → I don’t walk

Eventually, these adverb-verb pairings became devoid of their verb-specific meanings to become generally-applicable negative adverbs (just like ne … rien, ne … que, ne … jamais, etc.). At certain times in French linguistic history, one could even hear such utterances as: “je ne vois goutte” or “je ne marche mie.” Although “I don’t see a drop” or “I don’t walk a crumb” may sound incredibly bizarre to us (in either English or modern French), these means of expressing negation are really no more strange than “I don’t walk a point” or “I don’t say a step” … which are what today’s “je ne marche point” or “je ne dis pas” literally mean. It’s simply that the French have adopted a new semantic sense for these words. With the passage of time, “ne … pas” became the dominant expression of “not” (along with “ne … point” to a much lesser degree), and the rest of these very colorful variants faded into history.

III.  The Jespersen’s Cycle: Only If You’re Really Interested in Linguistics

As referenced earlier, because of the phonetically de-accentuated position of the “ne” in spoken French, it is common in colloquial French to drop it altogether, leaving us with the secondary adverb as the sole negative adverb in the sentence (e.g., “je suis pas” ). This step is considered the final step in a process known in linguistics as a Jespersen’s Cycle. Interestingly, English has already undergone this evolution and possibly has started the cycle again. Below is an illustration of the Jespersen’s Cycle in French and in English for the same sentence: “I don’t say.” (In each sentence, the verb is underlined and the negation markers (negative adverbs) are in boldface.)

STEP 1—Single pre-verbal negation marker

Old French : jeo ne di
Old English : ic ne secge

STEP 2—Pre-verbal negation marker becomes less salient, and a new post-verbal marker is added

Modern (standard) French :  je ne dis pas
Middle English : I ne seye not

STEP 3—Pre-verbal marker is dropped, leaving a single post-verbal marker

Modern (colloquial) French : je dis pas
Early Modern English : I say not

STEP 1 AGAIN—Single post-verbal marker transitions to pre-verbal position

Future French : ?
Modern English (with auxilary verb “do”) : I don’t say

So there you have it: the story of why the French use a word that means “step” to say “not.” Hopefully there were at least a few of you out there who found this account as engaging as I did. I can’t vouch for the complete accuracy of it – I’m not a linguist, after all … though perhaps I should have been!

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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2 thoughts on “You don’t say!

  1. Congratulations for this post! I’m studying negation in English and in French and I know the Jespersen cycle…you may not be a linguist but you definitely got the point!! :-)

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