I'm looking for a reference to the claim that negative comparative operators like "less" are cross-linguistically rarer than their positive counterparts.

Is anyone familiar with this claim, and able to provide a reference? Thanks in advance for any assistance.

EDIT: This question is specifically about the "morphosyntactic inventories" of the world's languages -- are negative comparative operators (e.g. "less") more marked than positive ones. In saying this, I intend to distinguish my question from questions about whether speakers tend to avoid negative comparisons in preference of positive ones (e.g. avoiding "X is shorter than Y" in favor of "Y is taller than X").

  • In Biblical Hebrew, there's an odd structure for the comparative: "X is adj. from/among Y" = "X is more adj. than Y". For example, Gen. 3:1: "The serpent was crafty from/among all the animals" = "The craftiest animal." Or 1 Kings 19:7: "The journey is great from/among you" = "The journey is greater than you." (That last one confused me and my fellow students because it looks like "The journey from you -- from where you are -- is great.") Given this structure, I'm not sure how exactly I'd say "less than"! Probably just reverse it. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:39

2 Answers 2


This is to the now edited question:

It maybe surprising for speakers of Standard Average European languages that so-called "particle comparatives" are rare among the languages of the world, most of the languages use other means to express comparison. For an introduction, see WALS, Chapter 121. Unfortunately, WALS does not provide data on positive/negative comparison.

Note also, that German lacks a positive comparison operator in the strict sense, you just say Peter ist größer als Paul using the comparative form of the adjective in question. You can say (altho' this is a marked construction, the use of kleiner is more natural) Paul ist weniger groß als Peter with a negative comparison operator. Imitating English or French and saying *Peter ist mehr groß als Paul is ungrammatical for German.

  • Hmmm. To me it seems a bit orthogonal to SAE. The German way is also the Slavic way. But as we go South into the Balkansprachbund, Anatolia, Armenia, everything is synthetic, even better is just more good in the modern spoken languages. South Slavic makes it obvious because there is a continuum from Slovene in Austria to the Slavic dialects in Greece. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 7:46
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    And in Armenian, less is just more little. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 7:49
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    It would seem that what typifies SAE is this inconsistent situation where the comparatives of good, bad, much and little are totally irregular and even structurally different. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 7:53

Just a quick test using Wortschatz at Leipzig University

Some examples from German language mehr "more" vs. weniger "less"; größer "bigger" vs. kleiner "smaller"

 Wort: mehr Anzahl: 820,965 Rang: 55 Häufigkeitsklasse: 4 
 Wort: weniger Anzahl: 125,207 Rang: 288 Häufigkeitsklasse: 7
 Wort: größer Anzahl: 16,693 Rang: 2,393 Häufigkeitsklasse: 10 
 Wort: kleiner Anzahl: 22,824 Rang: 1,752 Häufigkeitsklasse: 9 

The pair größer/kleiner seems to contradict the intuition, but there a lots of non-comparative uses of the two words, specially of kleiner (e.g., ein kleiner Frechdachs). Testing with the comparison particle als restores the ranks:

 Wort: größer als Anzahl: 3,393 Rang: 10,121 Häufigkeitsklasse: 12 
 Wort: kleiner als Anzahl: 1,325 Rang: 21,873 Häufigkeitsklasse: 13 

So, the claim seems to be supported by the available data. Unfortunately I have no references on who formulated the claim first (although I think it is a well-known claim in the linguistic community). I am also not aware of a catchy name given to this claim.

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    Thanks for your response. My question was actually about typology -- specifically, whether there are languages for which negative comparative operators (e.g. "less") are not attested, but positive ones are. I definitely share your intuition that speakers tend to avoid negative constructions in favor of positive ones (e.g. "X is taller than Y" in place of "Y is shorter than X"). But the question here is about whether negative operators are cross-linguistically more marked in the morphosyntactic inventories of the world's languages.
    – Panglot
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 22:53

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