A hybrid approach to Jespersen’s cycle in West Germanic

Original Paper


The goal of this paper is to propose an alternative interpretation of the diachronic development of the expression of negation known as Jespersen’s cycle as it is found in the West Germanic languages. Research to date has focussed mainly on the conditions behind the rise of the secondary negator. Much less attention has been paid to the fate of the original marker. The present paper focuses on the development of the original negation particle in the West Germanic languages English, Dutch, and High and Low German and argues that at least in these languages, its weakening and reinforcement are related in a more complex way than is usually assumed and that functional redundancy due to the presence of two negation elements is not likely to be the reason for its loss. Rather, a shift in the licensing conditions of n-indefinites created a potential ambiguity of the original marker which fed into its reanalysis as a polarity marker at exactly the point when a new marker became available, by reanalysis of a previously and independently grammaticalised reinforcer. It is argued that the two reanalyses have to occur simultaneously, resulting in a hybrid approach to Jespersen’s cycle in West Germanic, as opposed to previous approaches under which one of the changes conditions the other.


Middle Dutch Middle English Middle High German Middle Low German Negation Syntactic change 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Modern & Medieval LanguagesUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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