What are some examples of negators that have a known (or even conjectured) etymology? What kinds of non-negative meanings can develop into negative meanings?

The etymologizable negators I know of all arise from a kind of syntagm where a negative is used together with some other element, and that element then takes on the negative meaning, with the original negator sometimes disappearing. Examples are French pas < 'step', personne < 'person'; Ancient Greek ou < 'life'; and English not < ne wight 'no creature/thing' (where the original negator n- has remained).

Are there other etymological pathways which can result in negators? I'm interested in any item which falls broadly under the "negative" umbrella: not just verbal negators, but nominal ones (e.g. German kein/Dutch geen), negative predicators (e.g. Hungarian nincs 'is not', Hebrew eyn 'there is not'), etc.

  • The process whereby originally separate (usually emphatic) elements become increasingly bound to expressions of negation, sometimes to the point that the original negator disappears entirely, is known as Jespersen's Cycle. (The English case is more interesting than you suggest, because the original negator has not in fact survived: the newiht -> noht -> not was an intensifier that (unlike the French pas) contained a negative element, but it was added to a separate ne which has since vanished.) IIRC you'll find a lot of material relating to your question in Jespersen's book on negation.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 10 '14 at 0:45
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    @ColinFine Thanks, but just to clarify, I'm looking for sources of negation other than Jespersen's Cycle. Sorry if that wasn't clear from the question.
    – TKR
    Feb 10 '14 at 17:32
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    Widespread use of rhetorical questions like “where do I have money?” meaning “I don’t have money” might eventually lead to some element of the question grammaticalizing into a marker of negation. See discussion in John Haiman’s grammar of Cambodian (JBenjamins 2011), pp. 230-1.
    – neubau
    Feb 13 '14 at 14:58

Adyghe (ady; Northwest Caucasian) has a negative indefinite zjə 'no-one, nothing', which is built from the numeral 'one' and an additive particle -jə, so literally it is something like 'and/even one'.

Typically it would be used in scalar negation, as I call it. With a negated predicate you get:

(1) z-jə    qe-kʼʷa-ʁ-ep
    one-ADD DIR-go-PST-NEG
   'Nobody came.' [lit. 'Not even one came']

But it also passes the usual tests for negative indefinites, such as constituting a negative answer in elliptical contexts (Who gave you flowers? - Nobody.). So I think it should fit under your broad umbrella.

In various dialects the negative indefinite may have different shapes, including zəcjə from 'tooth' and zəparjə whose etymology I don't know.

  • to add to that, same pattern occurs in greek (ancient and modern), as "καν-ενα", meaning "not even one", and same goes for "μη-δ-εν", "ου-δ-εν"
    – Nikos M.
    Sep 17 '15 at 17:46

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