The landscape of neg-words

On the cross-linguistic variation of negatively marked expressions


In many languages sentences containing a negation and a negatively marked nominal expression are interpreted as containing a single negative element, and the same may hold for sentences containing multiple negatively marked nominal expressions. This is illustrated in (1) and (2) for Italian: although both sentences contain two negative expressions, the negative marker non ‘not’ and the negatively marked nominal expression nessuno ‘nobody’, (1-2) are interpreted as containing a single negative element. These sentences convey the meanings ‘Nobody called’ and ‘Nobody called anybody’, respectively, rather than the meanings ‘Nobody did not call’ and ‘Nobody called nobody’. This phenomenon of multiple negative expressions contributing a single negation is known as negative concord and languages exhibiting the phenomenon, such as Italian, as negative concord languages.

(1)  Non ha telefonato a nesssuno
Not has called to n-body
‘He called nobody’
(2) Nessuno ha telefonato nessuno
N-body has called n-body
‘Nobody called anybody’

Negative concord behaviour exhibited in (1-2) becomes particularly puzzling when coupled with the observation that, to the extent that the negatively marked nominal expressions may occur on their own, they contribute a negative meaning. This is illustrated in (3). Accordingly, one would expect (1-2) to convey doubly negated meanings, contrary to fact. 

(3) Nessuno ha telefonato
N-body has called
‘Nobody called’

It is commonly agreed that this puzzling semantic behaviour has to do with the underlying properties of negatively marked nominal expressions in negative concord languages (we refer to such expressions henceforth as n-words after Laka 1990). Various theories have been proposed to explain this remarkable behaviour of n-words. According to some proposals (e.g., Zanuttini 1991, Haegeman 1995, Haegeman & Zanuttini 1996, De Swart & Sag 2002, Watanabe 2004, De Swart 2010), n-words are negative quantifiers (e.g., nessuno means something akin to ‘no person’), and some kind of semantic absorption mechanism accounts for why the n-word and negation in (1) and the two n-words in (2) are interpreted as contributing a single negation. On these proposals, the two n-words ‘fuse’ together at the level of interpretation. Such approaches, however, face the challenge of explaining why in (1) the presence of the negative marker is obligatory, as demonstrated again for Italian in (4) (whereas omitting negation is perfectly fine in a non-negative-concord language like English). Hence, without adopting further assumptions, n-words cannot be treated as negative quantifiers that ‘fuse’ together at the level of interpretation with another expression.

(4) *Ha telefonato nessuno
Has called n-body
‘Nobody called’

In light of this, other scholars (e.g., Ladusaw 1992, Brown 1999, Giannakidou 2000, Weiss 2002, Zeijlstra 2004, Penka 2010) have argued that n-words are semantically non-negative elements that for some reason always appear in the scope of a negation. In this sense, they resemble so-called Negative Polarity Items (NPIs) like English anybody and in weeks, whose distribution is also restricted (see e.g. Fauconnier 1976, Ladusaw 1979, Giannakidou 1999, Gajewski 2011, Chierchia 2013, Crnič 2014a, among many others; some authors argue that n-words are, in fact, a kind of NPIs, e.g., Giannakidou 2000, Chierchia 2013): 

(5) a. He has*(n’t) called anybody
b. He has*(n’t) called in weeks

The problem, though, is that, as shown above, if an n-word does not appear in the scope of negation, it may become negative itself, as illustrated in (2) and (3), where nessuno in the subject position means ‘nobody’. The behaviour of NPIs like anybody and in weeks is distinct: NPIs are ungrammatical unless they are embedded in the scope of an appropriate operator, say, negation, at surface structure. Moreover, the class of operators in the scope of which NPIs may felicitously occur include operators other than negation, say, the quantificational determiner every.

(6)  a. *Anybody has called anybody
b. * In weeks she has called
(7)  Every student who called anybody was suspended

Hence, the distribution of n-words is distinct both from negative quantifiers and from NPIs, though it also shares some properties with both categories of expressions. Now, there are several ways of capturing these similarities and differences within a formal framework, and of explaining whether, to what extent, or how the distribution of n-words could be explained in terms of NPI-hood and/or in terms of (negative) quantifier theory. These different formal explanations, however, make different predictions with respect to the range of variation in terms of the semantic behaviour and syntactic distribution of n-words across languages. Accordingly, exploring the range of cross-linguistic variation forms a necessary ingredient for the evaluation of different theories of n-words and negative concord, and is thus bound to provide a better understanding of the ways in which negation is expressed in natural language. To a significant extent, a full exploration of this range of variation has not been pursued before (though see Giannakidou 2006, Shimoyama 2011, Zeijlstra 2013b). The preliminary results that we have obtained, and that are partially described below, however, already suggest that the range of variation that n-words exhibit with respect to their semantic and syntactic behaviour is more substantial than usually considered. Therefore, this inquiry may be extremely fruitful for advancing our understanding of the nature of n-words and our understanding of the nature of the syntax-semantics interface.

The main objectives of the project are: 

Q1. To explore the variation in the distribution of n-words across languages, which involves discovering and properly characterizing the parameters of variation.
Q2. To provide a formal account of this variation, which involves a detailed evaluation of the different approaches to n-words.
Q3. To situate this account within a more general theory of expressions whose distribution is sensitive to the ‘polarity’ of the clause in which they occur (positive polarity items; NPIs; negative markers, expletive negation; etc).

See the full description here.

Research team

Luka Crnič

Language, Logic, Cognition Center Department of Linguistics
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Mount  Scopus, 91905 Jerusalem, Israel
Phone: 02-588-2713

Ivy Sichel

Linguistic Department
University of California Santa Cruz
1156 High Street, Santa Cruz
CA, 95064, USA
Phone: 831-459-5611

Hedde Zeijlstra

Seminar for English Philology
Kate-Hamburger-Weg 3 #260 
D-37073 Göttingen Germany
Phone: +31.49.551.39.7566

Julie Goncharov

Language, Logic, Cognition Center Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Mount  Scopus, 91905 Jerusalem, Israel Email: Website: Julie Goncharov's webpage

Marten Stelling

Seminar for English Philology
Kate-Hamburger-Weg 3 #258 
D-37073 Göttingen Germany


Workshop in Göttingen!

: March 27th-29th, 2017
Where: Georg-August-University

This workshop is the first semi-public event of the Landscape of Neg-words Project. It features talks of the members of the research team, as well as invited talks.

We are delighted to announce that the invited speakers are:

Anamaria Fălăuş
Andreea Nicolae
Doris Penka
Maribel Romero

See the Workshop Program here .

Ivy Sichel giving a talk at LLCC

Title: Demonstrative Pronouns and the Linguistic Encoding of Appraisal (joint work with Martina Wiltschko)
When: December 21, 2016
Where: Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Hedde Zeijlstra giving a talk at LLCC

Title: Modal and non-modal NPIs and PPIs
When: November 15, 2016
Where: Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Hedde Zeijlstra at NELS 47

Title: Explaining FOFC without the LCA
When: October 14-16, 2016
Where: UMass Amherst

Hedde Zeijlstra in Utrecht

Title: On the locality and the strength of NPI and PPI licensing. Logic in Language and in Conversation
When: September 19-20, 2016
Where: Utrecht

Hedde Zeijlstra in Paris

Title: On the locality and the strength of NPI and PPI licensing. New Ideas on Semantic Modelling
When: September 7-8, 2016
Where: Paris

Hedde Zeijlstra at Sinn & Bedeutung 21

Title: Strict vs non-strict NPIs and PPIs.
When: September 4-6, 2016
Where: University of Edinburgh


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(c) 2016 The landscape of neg-words project team