Faux-pas? Language's relationship to the negative

PUBLISHED: 17:00 01 November 2019

Paralympian Will Bayley and partner Janette Manrara perform a Paso Doble on Strictly Come Dancing. Picture: BBC

Paralympian Will Bayley and partner Janette Manrara perform a Paso Doble on Strictly Come Dancing. Picture: BBC

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PETER TRUDGILL explains the journey along which we arrived at our use of the negative

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If you have learnt even a little bit of French, you will probably know that the word pas in that language means 'not'. Pas mal! is 'not bad'. Pas encore means 'not yet'. Pas moi! is the equivalent of 'not me!' Pas devant les enfants, 'not in front of the children' even has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

You may also know that pas in French has another totally different meaning: 'step', corresponding to the English word pace. A faux pas is literally a 'false step'. In ballet, a pas de deux is a dance for two people; and pas de chat, 'a cat's step', is a jumping step where each foot is alternately raised up to the knee of the opposite leg. The Spanish equivalent of French pas is paso, as in paso doble, literally 'double step'. Pas, paso and pace all descend from the Latin word passum, 'step'.

What is intriguing about the two senses of pas as 'not' and 'step' in French, however, is that they were originally one and the same word. On the face of it, this is something of a surprise. How could a word meaning 'step' end up meaning 'not'? - because that is what really did happen.

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In Latin, the word for 'not' was non, and it was placed before the verb. Vado was a verb form meaning 'I go, I am going', so non vado signified 'I'm not going'. As time went by, however, it seems that people were increasingly inclined to say, instead or as well, non vado passum, meaning 'I'm not going (a) step'. This may initially have been for emphasis, and/or because the word non was increasingly being reduced in pronunciation, so that adding passum after the verb made it clearer what was being said.

Similarly, non vedo, 'I don't see' was increasingly expressed as non vedo punctum,'I don't see (a single) point'; non comedo, 'I'm not eating' became non comedo micam, 'I'm not eating (a) crumb'; and non bibo, 'I'm not drinking' was expanded to non bibo gutta, 'I'm not drinking (a) drop'. We do the same kind of thing in English sometimes: I'm not budging an inch; I'm not eating a thing; I'm not saying a word.

As Latin gradually morphed into French, passum was reduced to pas, punctum became point, micam turned into mie, and gutta changed to goutte. At the same time, non was gradually reduced to ne; so non vado passum gradually came to be expressed as je ne vais pas, and non bibo gutta became je ne bois goutte. Reinforcing the negativity of non/ne in this way eventually became the norm in French.

(One other development that occurred, as can be seen here, was that it became necessary in French to insert pronouns like je, 'I', because Latin personal endings like -o 'first-person singular', as in vad-o, had been lost.)

Then, slowly, words such as point and mie, which had originally been employed to reinforce a negative statement, started acquiring negative meanings themselves, and their original more concrete meanings were gradually lost; so mie, 'crumb', ended up being extended as a marker of negation to verbs which had nothing to do with eating.

Similarly, pas lost all connection with walking, and eventually became the most popular of all these negators, replacing most of the others. People started saying not only je ne vais pas, 'I'm not going', but also je ne bois pas, 'I'm not drinking', and je ne mange pas, 'I'm not eating'. In Modern French, this process has gone so far that pas has gradually taken over the main job of negating verbs, and the original negator non, now ne, is often simply omitted. You can say je vais pas, 'I'm not going', and je bois pas, 'I'm not drinking', and pas can now operate entirely on its own - as in pas moi, 'not me'!

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