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I'm a bulgarian. My language has a double negation form and I do not understand why and how can people talk like that and how it came to be in first place. Everyone just seem to accept it and no one actually questions it. Here is an example:

English: Don't you ever speak to me again

Official bulgarian: Don't you never speak to me again

I was taught that way in school but now I find it a bizarre way of expressing my thoughts. Even official documents use this form. My language do allow for logically correct sentences but I've never seen a single person using them.

I want to know what is the driving force behind this (...madness) and how it came to be? How can people talk like that and do not take a notice?

Here are some more examples:

English: No one has spoken

Official bulgarian: No one hasn't spoken

Unused bulgarian: There wasn't a single person to speak

English: I've never seem him do that

Official bulgarian: I haven't never seem him do that

Unused bulgarian: There has not been a time during which I have seen him do that

English: One can never know

Official bulgarian: One can't never know

Unused bulgarian: There is no way one can know

My theory is that bulgarians do not form the complete sentence in their heads before they speak it and when they are speaking they are trying to make a point so badly that they negate one more time some words. It's like trying to put too much emotion into a sentence which leads to a double negation. I know that my language is not the only one that has this feature.

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    This is a fairly common feature of languages, and it has nothing to do with Bulgarians or anyone else forming complete sentences first. You could look at it as a kind of agreement, just as there is gender agreement. The biggest problem is people trying to apply rules of math to negation in natural language. It isn't obvious why this redundancy is so common compared to e.g. tense marking. – user6726 Dec 18 '15 at 19:04
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    Many dialects of English allow this as well. Your theory (and that of many who insist that standard dialects of English are somehow more correct) is based on the false assumption that languages necessary follow the patterns of formal logic. There is no basis for this assumption. – Colin Fine Dec 18 '15 at 21:25
  • What is "Unused Bulgarian" ? – shabunc Dec 18 '15 at 21:50
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    Are you bothered by double plurals? E.g., since "books" means at least two, mathematically "five books" must be at least 5 x 2 = 10? – bof Dec 19 '15 at 4:58
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As @user6726 said in their comment, double negation is a fairly common feature of many languages.

Answering, "What is the reason?", there are two aspects:

  1. "What is the reason?" in meaning, "why does it present in Bulgarian, but is absent in some other languages?" — because modern Bulgarian is on a different Phase of Jespersen's Cycle.
  2. "What is the reason?" in meaning of "how it is used?" — in languages with double-negation, single-negation also has meaning, but a different one.

In his work, Negation in English and Other Languages (1917), Otto Jespersen has discovered a pattern that describes how linguistic negation shifts between several Phases:

  1. Negation is expressed by a single negative marker (NEG1);
  2. Negation is expressed by NEG1 in a combination with a negative adverb or noun phrase (NEG2);
  3. NEG2 takes on the function of expressing negation by itself; NEG1 becomes optional;
  4. NEG1 becomes extinct and NEG2 expresses negation on its own.

So, Bulgarian is on a Phase 2 of Jespersen's Cycle, while, for example, English is in Phase 4 (thanks @StoneyB for correction). It is well possible that in some distant future Bulgarian shifts to Phase 1 or Phase 3, we don't know.


Chapter VII "Double Negation" (page 62 in the referenced document) reviews many examples of double negation in various languages, including those belonging to Slavonic family. One of the nice ideas stated there is that even in a language with double negation, single-negation phrases are valid, and they convey a meaning, different to double-negation ones.

To give a hint (a bit stretched because it is English), think for a difference between "nobody has spoken", "everyone has not spoken", and "somebody has not spoken".
Or yet another example, "I didn't go nowhere" (a normal double negation) vs. "I didn't go somewhere" (I'm not willing to discuss where specifically I was planning to go).

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    English is actually in Phase 4. In Phase 1 the negator was ne. But +1 anyway. – StoneyB Dec 18 '15 at 21:50
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    @StoneyB: I'm pretty sure that Phase 1 and Phase 4 are the same thing, just looked at from different perspectives. (That's what makes this a "cycle".) – ruakh Dec 19 '15 at 2:13
  • @ruakh Yes, I meant that somewhat jocularly. But English has been through the entire cycle. – StoneyB Dec 19 '15 at 4:14
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Double negation is an extremely common linguistic feature for languages in general and almost universally serves not as a logical predicate but rather to emphasize the negation of the general idea being conveyed.

For example, in the phrase "They don't NEVER skip school", the double negative does not mean (they (not (not (skip school))) i.e. they skip school, but instead NOT (they skip school) i.e. it is not the case that they skip school.

It may not be a prescribed feature of Standard English as taught to second language learners or in primary school grammar class, but it is certainly a feature of the English spoken in many dialects and regions of the world.

Here are for example some phrases you would be likely to hear in Southern American English and African American Vernacular English:

"You aint never gonna get there on time." or "He don't know nothing." or even "We don't need no education".

This type of double negation was also very common in Standard English during Chaucer's time and even into Shakespear's as well.

So where did all these "logical rules" for English negation come from? Well, back in the 18th century a bunch of logicians decided the language should be more logical and started writing grammars that discouraged the usage of double negation constructs and over time it sort of stuck, even though like I said in many English dialects you would sound wierd if you didn't perform double negation.

references: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/02/grammar-myths-3/

  • I'm marking @bytebuster 's answer as correct, but I want to say that yours was also very helpful. I really want to mark both answers, but I can not : / – Yordan Dec 18 '15 at 22:46
  • +1 for "We don't need no education", because Pink Floyd. – Massimo Dec 19 '15 at 18:15
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My language do allow for logically correct sentences (...)

It seems like Bulgarian is a 'misty' case where you can and cannot use double negation. English does not allow that and Polish requires that. But where does it come from?

You can watch a great mini-lecture (unfortunately in Polish) which has a part about double/multiple negation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovTZK2EL_pk

One of the arguments for the double negation is purely meaning of the sentence:

  • There is nobody here. -- Since it's nobody, then how can it be?
  • I have nothing. -- Since it's nothing then how can you even have it?

Don't you feel (in Bulgarian) that you actually can't have nothing? Isn't it more sensible? ;-)


In Bulgarian, although it's allowed, it still may sound weird to some people, but in Polish (my mother tongue) we can (and we actually have to) use multiple negations. An example:

  • Nikt nigdy nic nie powiedział.

Which translates to:

  • Nobody hasn't never told nothing. - roughly word by word
  • Nobody has ever told. - a correct version I think ;-)

It might look horribly wrong to you, however you simply can't express the same thought in other way. When you negate in Polish you need to negate every 'logical' part of the sentence:

  • nobody - since the action of talking had no 'owner' (actor)
  • hasn't - since the action of talking didn't happen
  • never - since the action didn't happen in any time in the past
  • nothing - since the action had no content (nothing was told)

That's the only correct way of negating :)

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Interestingly, in Russian, we never call it "double negation" (at least I never heard it), although Russian is often listed in English-language sources as an example of a language with "double negation".

The thing is, we don't use the same particles. We apply ne to verbs and ni to everything else. In our tradition, ni is called an "intensifier" (similar to how you add "any" in English for intensification: "i don't know ANY ..."). Etymologically, it stems from ne + i, which can be roughly translated as "not also". Example: "I don't know anyone" = ne znaju nikogo

When, in fact, we put two ne together (no ni!), we have the same rule as in English, i.e. NO+NO=YES:

ne mogu ne znat "I cannot not know" => "I DO know"

Because of that, I think "double negation" is a misnomer for Russian (maybe for Bulgarian, too?), because ni and ne are different particles with different meanings.

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