I was wondering how in English we say "I can" and "I can not" the negative is the longer one, in terms of morphemes, but is there any language where the negative is the default and the positive is the longer construct?

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    The closest that occurs to me is something like in English "That smells" implying "That smells bad", whereas for example in German "That tastes" implies "That tastes good". – Adam Bittlingmayer Nov 3 '18 at 19:45

This happens in some Dravidian languages. Specifically, in these languages, positive verbs have a tense marker and a person marker; negative verbs differ from them only in lacking the tense marker.

A set of examples from Old Kannada (from Miestamo 2010):

no:ḍ-uv-eṃ see-FUT-1SG ‘I will see’

no:ḍ-id-eṃ see-PST-1SG ‘I saw’

no:ḍ-eṃ see-1SG ‘I do / did / will not see’

As you can see, the negative is formed simply by omitting the tense marker (with the result that it's ambiguous for tense); there's no explicit marker of negation.

  • Is there no explicit negative marker in the language at all? – curiousdannii Nov 3 '18 at 22:11
  • @curiousdannii I don't know enough about Dravidian languages to answer that, but I assume there are negators for other functions than simple verb negation, at least. – TKR Nov 4 '18 at 1:05
  • A similar case is Swahili where at least some tenses (like the present) include a tense marking prefix in the positive which is not found in the negative. Also, since some some such markers cannot carry stress, a dummy prefix is inserted to carry the stress if necessary; this is also not found in the negative. An example: ni-na-ku-la (1sg-PRES-STRESS-eat = I eat) vs si-l-i (1sg.NEG-eat-NEG). Granted, the negation is marked – twice in fact, in a negative pronoun and a negative suffix – so the positive is still the basis; but the negative is significantly shorter than the positive. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 20 '18 at 21:56

I don't think such a language exists. It seems to be a language universal, that positive is default. It's for the same reason that a language may lack a word for "bad", but may not lack a word for "good".

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    Could you support your assertion about it being a language universal? And which languages lack a word for "bad"? – b a Nov 3 '18 at 18:24
  • If the opposite doesn't exist anyway, then what would be the point of having word for "good"? – lemontree Nov 3 '18 at 18:31
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    The problem is that the universality claim requires an impossible infinite search to verify. It is an observationally uncontradicted generalization at least in my experience and awareness of the literature. But I don't know if it's contradicted in Nivkh or Mapuche. – user6726 Nov 3 '18 at 18:42
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    Though actually, loathe as I am to suggest appeal to authority, the claim is implied in the WALS chapter on negative morphemes. – user6726 Nov 3 '18 at 19:10
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I could have sworn I knew nuann! as slang for great!, but I can't find any references now. Well anyway, since Greenlandic doesn't really have adjectives, there's also the noun -tsialak which means "good", as in atuarfitsialak, "a good school". – Wilson Nov 21 '18 at 8:47

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