Many languages have a little subsystem that uses a combination of particles of no*, some*, any*, every* or similar to create related question and negation words.

This is what the system roughly looks like this in English:

With complete sets like:

nothing, anything, something, everything

noone, anyone, someone, everyone

nowhere, anywhere, somewhere, everywhere

And incomplete sets like:

nohow, anyhow, somehow

never, any time, sometimes, every time

This looks very similar cross linguistically, although, some sets that are incomplete in one language are complete in another. E.g. Czech:

nikdy (lit. nowhen), někdy (lit. somewhen)

However, because the actual words that compose this subsystem fall across word classes (pronouns, adverbs, adjectives) and functions (e.g. negation vs. positive statements vs. indeterminate statements). I couldn't find any grammar (outside some learner grammars) that actually treats this as a subsystem.

Does anybody know of any studies and/or grammars of this subsystem in any language (or better still across languages). It's hard to research because there is no one term that I could find that covers all of these words. Yet, they are clearly related - I'm afraid I'm missing something obvious but I've been looking for a while.

  • You conclude: "Yet, they are clearly related ..." But why do you think that? It seems to me that what they have in common is that it is relatively easy for us to understand their relationship to one another. But that is a fact about us and what we understand -- not a fact about them.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 20:21
  • Good question. But, of course, it is a point you can make about any bit of grammar. Just because we can see a regularity, it does not mean that it represents some underlying generative linguistic essence. In a way, it goes to the heart of what motivates my question. I come at it from the 'constructional perspective' which is not seeking a relatedness deeper than a clear set of surface analogies that are moderately productive and work in a different but comparable way across languages. I would take the same approach to tense and aspect or case. This is just a nice small example. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 21:20
  • @Dominik: If you can describe a regularity so that somebody else can see it, you have something. You say "or similar" after the list of words. All of the words are quantifiers, some enhanced with contractions or inflections. Should we expect the "similar" to be quantifiers, too?
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 21:24
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    If you don't like "somehow" as a quantifier since it refers to quality, let's call it a "qualifier" instead of "quantifier". Happy now?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 23:26
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    @GregLee That wasn't really the point. I don't particularly care what it's called (see above). What I'm reacting to is the suggestion that these things are somehow unproblematically some other one thing rather than their own little 'subsystem' with its own patterns of regularity and productivity/motivation that overlaps with things like quantifiers and 'qualifiers'. For me this is more of an example of a broader issue with ignoring these 'islands of regularity' rather than a big deal in its own right. Commented Nov 7, 2015 at 14:47

3 Answers 3


More traditionally oriented grammars call this subsystem Indefinite pronouns. Restricting the pronouns to words that really replace nouns (taking pro-noun literally) and reclassifying the rest of the old pronouns as determiners, adjectives, adverbs and particles is a rather recent innovation.

EDIT: I found two more terms: In a (hardly citable, but once you have the term you can track it down) Lateinische Schulgrammatik I found the term pronomina corelata for the pronomial part (including adjectives) of the system you describe.

Even better is the next one, it describes the full system. In Esperanto, thoses word are called tabelvortoj (table words).

  • Thanks. Do you have a reference? Modern grammars simply ignore this. Indefinite pronoun was one of the terms I considered by it doesn't work very well cross linguistically where the morphology excludes certain forms. Even in English, it's hard to think of 'anywhere' as a pronoun. Also, I know at least some grammars classify words like nothing as 'negative pronouns' and think of 'any' and 'no' as negative quantifiers. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 15:29
  • Browsing for a reference, here is Aelius Donatus (in Latin!). He has the adjectival forms in the pronoun class, but the adverbial forms in the adverb class: hs-augsburg.de/~harsch/Chronologia/Lspost04/Donatus/… Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 16:15
  • More importantly, a lot of these words are negative polarity items, and that is an important subsystem that overlies much of indefiniteness (the very term indefinite shows how basic negation is).
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 16:15
  • One of the reasons for my question is that I often use this as an example of how traditional grammatical hierarchical description can miss important aspects of the patterns of language - a case for a constructional approach. And I wanted to make sure that this is not well-known in some branch of linguistics and/or grammar I haven't come across. So far, it seems that I was right. It's not all that important that it has a fancy sounding linguistic termy name. I'd rather call it the 'something, nothing, anything constructional constellation' than try to jam it into the existing terminology. Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 18:44
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    A classic reference is Haspelmath 1997, see also his article in WALS. Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 0:14

These are all compounds of a logical quantifier (no[ne], some, many, most, each, every, all) and a basic noun (thing; body, one; time, ever, when; where; how, way[s]). Some are also contractions (n[ot]ever, al[l]ways).


Your list of words resonates with me. I have no answer to your question about whether they are treated as a group in any linguistics discussion.

However the NSM theory of semantics (and the perspective on grammar that flows from that semantics) suggests a list of indefinable semantic elements, which include the following: NOT, SOME, ALL, SOMEONE, SOMETHING~THING, WHERE~PLACE, WHEN~TIME, LIKE~AS~WAY.

Rather than be concerned with grammar and grammatical terminology I'm rather inspired to draw a direct line from these semantic elements to your list of obviously related words. Incidentally I connect LIKE~AS~WAY with how.

My answer is technically a comment. I know that you are aware of this theory, so I apologise if I am breaking the rules here. I am new to this site.

  • Extending on how I also see a natural grouping in SOMEONE, who, SOMETHING, which, TIME~WHEN, PLACE~WHERE, BECAUSE, why as well as LIKE~AS~WAY, how. [The capitals are used for the proposed semantic elements.] Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 5:48

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