Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.27

Mauro Lasagna, Anna Orlandini, Paolo Poccetti (ed.), Intorno alla negazione: analisi di contesti negativi, dalle lingue classiche al romanzo. Atti della giornata di studi, Roma, 26 febbraio 2009. Linguarum Varietas: An International Journal.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2012.  Pp. 208.  ISBN 9788862275125.  €95.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Roberta Meneghel, Università degli Studi di Verona (

Table of Contents

Among the volumes of the Special Issue of the journal Linguarum Varietas directed by Paolo Poccetti, negation is investigated in the first one, edited by Mauro Lasagna, Anna Orlandini and Paolo Poccetti. This volume constitutes the proceedings of a Study Day held in 2009 in Rome, and collects a dozen papers by international authors. Here all the linguistic aspects of negation are analyzed, i.e. syntactic behaviors and morphological processes, as well as semantic and pragmatic interpretations, lexical features, and cognitive approaches. The co-presence of these different perspectives has the advantage of providing a wide range of data, but care should be taken to avoid lack of cohesion: unlike Bernini and Ramat (1992),1 the volume shows no common areal typological approach, so it appears that each paper can only be taken per se. However, a closer look reveals that most papers are sequenced according to either thematic criteria, as is the case for Viti’s and Floricic’s works concerning Negative Concord, as well as Fruyt’s and Moussy’s about the grammaticalization of Latin subordinating conjunctions; or methodological criteria, as in Muller’s and Orlandini-Poccetti’s works, which both resort to Haspelmath’s maps. This would seem to suggest a possible division of the volume into small sections according to the themes and phenomena dealt with, and/or the theoretical frameworks adopted.

The process of grammaticalization is the most extensively studied topic, and includes Negative Polarity Items (NPI) and Minimizers (quantifiers representing minimum quantities), as well as their effects in negative contexts. They both offer good testing ground to all the twelve papers, because they are manifest linguistic changes in a diachronic perspective. However, it is worth noting that, although the title of the volume suggests that the study is crucially diachronic (“Analisi di contesti negativi dalle lingue antiche al romanzo”), in some of the papers the synchronic analysis proves more significant. In fact, there are no conclusions sketching out the path from ancient languages to the Romance ones. Furthermore, the multiple and relevant textual references are not always presented in a chronological order and this disadvantages the representation of the diachronic process examined.

Viti and Floricic analyze the Negative Concord in two different linguistic systems and with relation to NPI. Carlotta Viti (pp. 13-25) shows the functional role of Cumulative Negation in the Italian language, looking at particular constructions and regularity into word order. Negation is the boundary that signals the Focus position, and thus bears a rhematic function. When only one negation is expressed in a clause, one can find several interpretations because all constituents could be potentially focalized (only pragmatic context selects a particular interpretation).

(1) Paola FOC[non ha[comprato]F[un[libro]F[[sui]F[ [PIPISTRELLI] ]F]F]F]F]FOC
Conversely, multiple negation reduces the amount of possible interpretations. Cumulative Negation acts as a borderline restricting Focus only on one element (on prepositional phrase in following example): it is not a stylistic and redundant phenomenon.
(2) Paola non ha comprato un libro mica [sui pipistrelli]FOC

Frank Floricic (pp. 27-44) investigates the domain of Italo-Romance dialects. His analysis of the diachronic processes is based on the phases of Jespersen’s Cycle, which occur simultaneously in the dialects examined, and are not mutually exclusive, as intermediary stages exist in which “minimizers” emphasize negation. These expressions do not yet represent grammaticalization, because the original lexical meaning, often bound to physical reality, is still visible. The convincing number of examples deserves further attention particularly as to the relationship between the partitive and nominal origin (as bare nouns) of minimizers. When a partitive object is expressed in the sentence, the negation morpheme is deleted and replaced by minimizers (cf., e.g., the alternation occurring in the Piedmontese dialect between al ‘vedu ‘nᴐ (I do NOT see him), with the negation “not”; and al ‘maᶇʒa ‘miɲga da bis’kᴐti (He doesn’t eat AT ALL biscuits), with the nominal origin morpheme miɲga from Latin mica (crumb, whit)). This aspect remains partially unexplored.

Minimizers are also considered in the papers by Trifone and García Hernández. Trifone (pp. 45-51) first analyzes the negative sentence in the inscription from the Roman Catacomb of Commodilla and then investigates NPI denoting entities relating to the sexual sphere. He provides a catalogue of words or idioms entailing negation or negative meaning in the Roman dialect, with special attention to the poetic verse of G.G. Belli. His conclusion on the instrumental expression “cor cacchio” to render negation is intriguing, although a comparison of this expression with other dialects would be needed to confirm its validity, as well as further work sketching out the trigger of this phrase.

The paper by García Hernández (pp. 53-63) deals with some phraseological uses of nouns denoting minimum quantity used as NPI to reinforce negative sentences. The author outlines diachronically the history of particular nouns, such as pilus and capillus. Their linguistic development results in a sequence of grammaticalization from Latin authors (in phrases such as pili non facere “to care not a pin”) followed by degrammaticalization, to finally reach reinterpretation in the works by Christian authors. In such works pilus and capillus get back to representing minimum quantity in relation with resurrection and preservation of physical integrity, like in the biblical phraseological expressions capillus perit, cadit or permit capillum, “but not a hair on your head will be destroyed” (Lk. 21,18).

Fruyt and Moussy provide a different treatment of a number of Latin subordinating conjunctions. Of particular interest is their analysis of quominus in comparison with quin. Fruyt (pp. 65-77) offers a more historical analysis: he explains morpho-lexical and syntactic phenomena concerning the lexeme quominus at the interface between subordination and negation. He exemplifies convincingly the different stages of grammaticalization to which quominus has been exposed – unlike quin, which had already grammaticalized in the archaic age and was more widely used by Latin writers. Proof of the grammaticalization of quominus is the split of quo and minus, viewed first as two different elements in the works by Plautus and Terence, and subsequently as one. For this reason, Fruyt explains the different uses of quominus as the outcome of a reinterpretation and reanalysis of the relative pronoun combined with the negative morpheme (used as a comparative morpheme in the earlier stages). On the other hand, the reinterpretation for the completive quin comes from the interrogative use.

Moussy (pp. 79-90) offers a more synchronic – but equally intriguing – analysis. In his study negation is examined from a lexical point of view because lexical negation interacts with the subordinating conjunctions quin, quominus,ne, and hence with the interpretation of completive clauses. Moussy identifies specific verbal classes resulting from lexical negation: verba impediendi and verba dubitandi (“inherent negation”), verbs as ignoro or me fugit (“negative semantic feature”), verba recusandi (“with negative bias”) and verba timendi. Moussy also provides a variety of examples from Latin authors, which make this paper commendable. In this respect, a differentiation of such examples according to the authors’ period could be helpful in tracing the different stages of grammaticalization as well as in revealing further interesting patterns.

The common element in the papers by Álvarez Huerta and by Lambert is the use of a semantic-pragmatic approach for studying negative morphemes within the Latin and Greek linguistic systems. Álvarez Huerta (pp. 91-97) puts forward an interesting hypothesis for the origin of the Latin particle ne. In a semantic and pragmatic perspective, she proposes that the four2 particles used in different contexts by Latin Authors should be regarded as a single morpheme with negative sense. In interrogative and exclamative sentences, the negation, expressed by -ne, assumes particular value including a scalar implicature; in the affirmatives, ne conveys an ironical sense.

Her hypothesis is particularly intriguing in the light of more recent studies concerning negation in interrogative or exclamative contexts. However, the author does not cite any previous studies on the subject apart from a paper by Portner and Zanuttini (2000).3 Anyway, the metalinguistic approach of the ancient grammarians remains valid and adequate, but the study could benefit from an investigation into the reconstruction of the Indo-European negative particle, which in turn would make the single origin hypothesis more intriguing.

Lambert (pp. 99-109) considers the Greek negative particle οὐδέ and sheds new light on the scalar nature of the sentences it introduces. This negative particle focalizes a minimum quantity pragmatically, and thus reinforces the negative value of the clause. Furthermore, οὐδέ plays a functional role as a contrastive coordinating conjunction.

The pragmatic approach of these two papers leads the way to the following one by Medina Granda (pp. 111-131; appendix 132-146). She compares the ancient Occitan mala with the ancient French mar by analyzing oral contexts and providing a large number of examples collected in a short appendix. The head-on position in a clause and before the predicate allows us to think that mala functions as a pragmatic connector negating implicit expectation.

Also Muller and Orlandini and Poccetti consider minimizers and NPI. Unlike the previous authors, they take a different approach, namely, Haspelmath’s (1997) mapping approach4 to analyze the relationship between negation and indefinite pronouns.

Muller (pp. 147-168) modifies Haspelmath’s map for Negation in the French language system. He revises the outlines proposed within the universal typology on the basis of a redefinition of categories, such as the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ negation. He considers four series of indefinite pronouns examined by Haspelmath: quelque, pertaining to “specific use”; que ce soit, pertaining to “unspecific use” (especially with negative bias); personne, representing negative pronouns; and n’importe, representing free choice pronouns. The author widens the domain of use of each pronoun pertaining to the set of indefinites. In particular, also the contexts of indirect negation are open to neuter indefinite and free choice pronouns.

Orlandini and Poccetti (pp. 169-186) base their own study on Haspelmath’s original mapping scheme. To analyze Latin indefinite pronouns quisquam and ullus as NPI - shedding light on comparable form in the Oscan language, pídum - they exemplify all negative contexts in which indefinite pronouns operate to reinforce negation. They also point out that they are closer to “free choice” pronouns, irrespectively of whether negation is expressed. The crucial merit of this paper is the careful description of each semantic function of the Latin indefinite pronouns, each of which is appropriately exemplified from Latin texts.

The last paper by Dragotto (pp. 187-195) deals with the cognitive aspects of negation. It appears more as an introduction or a work preliminary to future studies. Here the author puts forward a number of interesting considerations. Among them, the combination between linguistic analysis in the language acquisition domain and the cognitive approach is of particular interest.

In brief, this volume offers the key to understanding some of the thorny issues concerning negation and scratches the surface of further unresolved questions – chiefly among them the relationship between negation and interrogative clauses, only briefly touched upon in a few papers (cf., e.g., Muller; Orlandini and Poccetti; and Álvarez Huerta). Finally, the references at the end of each article are useful to acknowledge the debt to previous works.


1.   Bernini G., Ramat P., 1992, La frase negativa nelle lingue d’Europa, Bologna, Il Mulino.
2.   In Etymological Dictionary by Ernout-Meillet (1959: 432ff.), there are four different headwords for particlene: is a (early) form of negation, and it does not subsist alone, but also a form with long vowel exists; both derived from *ne/ṇ. These forms contrast with interrogative -ne and affirmative (Gr. νη). According to authors the vowel lengthening is caused by emphatic value and use as free morpheme/word. Whereas (more convincing hypothesis) Álvarez Huerta considers short forms are more recent. Cf. Ernout A. - Meillet A., 19594, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine, Paris, Klincksieck.
3.   Portner P., Zanuttini R., 2000, “The Force of Negation in Wh Exclamatives and Interrogatives” in Horn L., Kato Y. (eds.), Negation ad Polarity. Syntactic and Semantic Perspectives, Oxford, pp. 193-231.
4.   Haspelmath M., 1997, Indefinite Pronouns, Oxford University Press. In his work, Haspelmath identifies nine core functions of Indefinite Pronouns contained in a semantic implicational map. The functions are Specific known (to speaker), Specific unknown (to the speaker) as ‘specific uses’; Irrealis, Question, Conditional, Indirect negation, Direct Negation as ‘non-specific uses’; Comparative; Free choice. In English, for example, Indefinite Pronouns ‘somebody’, ‘anybody’, ‘nobody’ crossed different areas in the Haspelmath’s map. Somebody (series S) covers all ‘specific uses’, but also Irrealis, Question and Conditional functions. Anybody (series A) reaches out all ‘non-specific uses’ (except Irrealis), besides Comparative and Free-Choice functions. Nobody (series N), instead of others, functions only as Direct negation.

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