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

  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.

However, I'm confused with its name. To me, a cycle is something that repeats over and over. As far as I understood, there's no evidence of more than a single iteration here. It seems that only certain languages (including English) have completed their first iteration, and the others (a majority) have not yet even completed their first iteration.

Hence, the question: why they called it a cycle?

UPD, thanks to Gaston Ümlaut: The term itself has been suggested by Östen Dahl in his work "Typology of Sentence Negation" (1979).


2 Answers 2


This is Negation by Association. It happens all the time. Probably it's unavoidable, given the variety of language changes that can occur over centuries, the variety of negative expressions, and the ubiquity of negation.

As to whether it's technically a "cycle", it certainly is a repetitive phenomenon, happening quite frequently. But of course it doesn't happen repeatedly to the same forms; this is the kind of cycle we mean when we talk about digestive cycles.

Like negation by association, digestion happens frequently, and in the same order of events, with similar inputs and similar outputs. But it doesn't have to be recursive.

  • 1
    Yes, there are many proofs that; for example, English went this cycle once: PIE/Sanskrit for phase1, AG phase2, Mid-English phase4, and modern English is somewhere in between phase2 to phase1. But is there any language that went through more than a single iteration? If not, why is it a cycle? Sep 16, 2012 at 23:22
  • 1
    This reminds me of the Grammaticalization Cycle, which never uses the same forms, even when it actually recurs in the same language, like the future paradigm in Brazilian Portuguese.
    – jlawler
    Sep 16, 2012 at 23:39

It's called a 'cycle' because the output at the end of stage 4 is able to feed the input at stage 1 (a single negative marker), so a new cycle could easily begin at this point, with the whole process repeating. This is made explicit by Jespersen in the first paragraph of chapter one of the work cited in the question (Negation in English and Other Languages (1917)). Jespersen himself only referred to this as a 'curious fluctuation'; the term 'Jespersen cycle' was coined by Östen Dahl in 'Typology of Sentence Negation' in Linguistics, 17 pp. 79-106.

So the pattern has the form of a cycle; but whether or not this cycle actually happens, repetitively, is another question that can be examined empirically, and has been in some depth: see e.g. Schwenter, Breitbarth & Haegeman, Dahl, Vossen, and many others accessible by web search.

  • 1
    Thank you for clarification about Dahl. Don't get me wrong, it still does not answer my question. Formally, if something has transitioned through phases 1-2-3-4-3-2-1, this fact does not say anything about whether it will even move again from point #1. Sorry for my ignorance and a loose analogy, but if I'm on a Market Square (NEG1), then go across several streets, get to a Times Square (NEG2), and then occasionally return back to the Market Square, there is no proof that I will go round these two squares forever (even via the different routes). Sep 17, 2012 at 13:18
  • 3
    @bytebuster, why "1-2-3-4-3-2-1"? I think the way to understand the "cycle" is that phase 4 = phase 1. Once you're at phase 4, NEG2 is the new NEG1. E.g. in spoken French (which is at phase 3), if "ne" were to become extinct, "pas" would be the "new ne". So 1-2-3-4/1-2-3 etc.
    – dainichi
    Sep 17, 2012 at 23:34
  • @dainichi Because in their works (Jespersen; Fischer, and others) it is stated very clearly: NEG1 is a preverbal negative marker (either a prefix or particle), and NEG2 is a postverbal adverb or noun phrase. Not the opposite. Also (I can't remember the exact source) I've read that French is on its "secondary phase 3", e.g. it has passed the whole way 1-2-3-4-3 and is heading towards 1. Sep 17, 2012 at 23:51
  • 1
    @bytebuster Abstracting away from the precise morphosyntax of the NEG forms is what enables the process to be viewed as a cycle. Anyway, I think you need to re-read the crucial para in Jespersen (1917, 4--5). He does not describe NEG1 as a 'preverbal negative marker' but simply as an adverb and states that the original neg adverb weakens, is strengthened by an additional word which gradually takes over the main role as NEG, and then may be subject to the same process. Ie, a cycle. Sep 18, 2012 at 1:16
  • 3
    @bytebuster, whether the pre/postverbal aspect has anything to do with the cycle or not, Jespersen himself is listing examples of the NEG moving to the front of the verb, either by simply pulling it up front (the Danish examples) or by "cheating" by using an auxiliary verb to move it past the main meaning-carrying verb (as in English). It is completely unclear to me where you get "1-2-3-4-3-2-1" from.
    – dainichi
    Sep 18, 2012 at 3:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.