I shot the sheriff
But I didn't shoot no deputy...

Lyrics from I Shot the Sheriff written by Bob Marley

Otto Jespersen was a linguist and an English Professor at the University of Copenhagen. Jespersen was best known for his work on syntax and language development, including his 1917 work Negation in English and Other Languages. The mere existence of this particular volume is a curiousity: within the first words of the book Jespersen acknowledges that the contents were initially drafted to be a chapter contained within his ongoing Modern English Grammar, the first two volumes of which had been published prior to The Great War. It was a delay in printing, brought on by the war, which allowed Jespersen to investigate negation more deeply and devote a full text to the subject.

Within Negation in English and Other Languages Jespersen provides colloquial and antiquated examples of changes with regards to how a culture treats their negation of verbs and indefinite articles over time. Throughout the first portion of the text, most of Jespersen's flow of thought is justified by citing quick examples from Greek/Norse works, where he will switch quite readily to short grammatical constructs in French, English, or German for the purpose of actually diagramming his observations. The core of Jespersen's feelings on negation are captured succinctly by his first paragraph in Chapter One of the text.

The history of negative expression in various languages makes us witness the following curious fluctuation: the original negative adverb is first weakened, then found insufficient and therefore strengthened, generally through some additional word, and this in its turn may be felt as the negative proper and may then in course of time be subject to the same development of the original word.

Jespersen believed that there are three specific phases of linguistic development with respect to negation. Within the first phase, there would be a single word for the purpose of negation with an occurance either at the beginning of the clause, immediately before the verb, or following shortly after the verb. The second phase refines and strengthens the concept of negation, with the verb becoming bracketed by two unique negation words. The third phase eliminates the redundancy by eliminating one of the negation words, generally the original negation occuring prior to the verb within the clause. The development, or cultural acceptance, of the third stage is referred to formally as prosiopesis, a linguistic process by which a word or clause has been ellipsized by a language and the remnants of the clause are considered proper use. Non negative examples of prosiopesis could be "(I will) see you later!" or "(God) Bless you!" for salutations or well-wishes, respectively.

Jespersen's first example of this phenomenon, come to be known as Jespersen's cycle is provided in French. The collocation of the French negations over time is illustrated below.

Phase 1: jeo ne di.
"I NEG say." The initial state contains a single preverbal negation.

Phase 2: je ne dis pas. --> je n' dis pas.
"I NEG say NEG." The second stage has both a preverbal and postverbal negation, although the original preverbal is weakened colloquially, sometimes immediately after the addition of the postverbal negation.

Phase 3: je dis pas.
"I say NEG." The third stage has a postverbal negation, and opens the possibility for weakening in the form of contraction or the genesis of a new word.


Jespersen, Otto. "Negation in English and Other Languages (full text). Cornel University public archives. Accessed 2012/20/7.

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