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It ain't nothing

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Think back to your French verbs and how to say you don’t <insert verb here> something. Je ne sais pas, je ne veux pas, etc. Anyone learning French sooner or later comes across alternatives replacing pas under various circumstances: je ne vois personne, for I see nobody, je ne pense guère for I hardly think. This, as I explain in my French out of France, is a result of what is known as the Jesperson Cycle, a switch in negativization which, in both Old French and Old English, began around about the year 1000.

In the good old days, verbs were negated by putting a ne in front of it. This was done in both French and English, for example:
• French: jeo ne dije ne dis pasje dis pas
• English: ic ne secgeI ne seye not → I say not (English has taken yet another step, borrowing the “do” verb from Welsh, but that’s a tale for another night, children)

However, the ne often weakened and a curious addition was glommed onto the end as a stronger, reiterating negation (and not a double negative: language is not math). Over several hundred years, the initial ne weakened further still until the second negation remained the only one. Interestingly, the second negation was not originally negative, but positive, or “something”. Some examples will explain the transformation. While French pas, literally step, in je ne marche pas may need a bit of arm-twisting to be understood as I [can]not walk a[nother] step, others are more obvious: je ne bois goutte, or I can’t drink another drop; je ne mange mie, or I can’t eat another crumb; and je ne vois point, or I don’t see at all (i.e. the tiniest dot). Some terms are borrowed from other languages, such as guère, as in guère utilisé, or not used much, from Frankish *waigaro, lots, and rien, nothing, from Latin res < rem, a thing.

The Jesperson Cycle, affecting languages such as Old Norse, Finnish, ancient Greek and others, is but one fascinating example of language shift over time, and what is “wrong” today is interesting for its implications tomorrow. Oddly, various languages have been simplifying for centuries, raising the question of why they were complicated in the first place, but highlighting what would seem to be a need for fluid, effective and economical communication in the more international and/or “advanced” societies.

So the anality of French insisting that we should use the ne when nobody does unless someone is looking has its legitimate reasons, but they are anal, as anal as the French Academy insisting that since prieure and supérieure derive from Latin comparatives, neologisms such as auteure or professeure should be proscribed. This is as idiotic as saying we shouldn’t say “sofa” because Turkish sofa originally designated a raised stone or wooden platform covered with cushions and such and they don’t sell them at Ikea.

Language is one of humanity’s richest mish-mashes, built piecemeal over centuries by everyday pignorami, a collection of accidental noises forced into a haphazard and often ambiguous communication system but one oftentimes striving for sense and logic. Some, English, Mandarin and Swahili, have simplified considerably compared to their peers to account for mass influxes into the relevant language pool of adult and language-hybrid offspring.

Basically, complicated or “esoteric” languages – and no prizes for guessing which one I might be referring to here – are harder to learn as adults, or even for children without regular and easy access to materials than simpler or “exoteric” ones.

English should be compulsory learning for all European children from a very young age, and all other languages should be abolished from the European Parliament.

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Guest Saturday, 07 December 2019
You are here: Home Frogologoblog Simon It ain't nothing