Topics: Linguistics - Historical Linguistics

Jespersen’s cycle is a process formulated by linguist Otto Jespersen that describes the historical development of the construction of negation in several languages.

Jespersen’s cycle can be described in 3 stages:

  1. Stage A: negation is expressed with a single negative adverb.
  2. Stage AB: with time, the single negative adverb is found to be insufficient and is strengthened with an additional word.
  3. Stage B: with time, the additional word may be felt as the proper negative and the original one is then dropped. The additional word may then go through the same cycle over time.



Negation in French provides an excellent example. Let’s use the phrase ’he doesn’t come‘:

  1. Stage A:
    • Ille non venit. (Latin)
    • Il ne vient. (Old French)
    • At this stage in (Old) French, negations could be reinforced with certain words:
      • « pas », ‘step’ as in « il ne marche pas » (‘he doesn’t walk a step’).
      • « gote », ‘drop’ as in « il ne boit gote » (‘he doesn’t drink a drop’).
      • « mie », ‘crumb’ as in « il ne mange mie » (‘he doesn’t eat a crumb’).
  2. Stage B:
    • Il ne vient pas. (Middle French)
    • At this stage in (Middle) French, « pas » (‘step’) was grammaticalised as the general negation word that reinforced the previously lone « ne ».
  3. Stage C:
    • Il vient pas. (modern colloquial French)
    • In (modern colloquial) French, « ne » is often dropped and « pas » is used as the only negation word.

Germanic Languages

Jespersen’s cycle can also be observed in Germanic languages languages such as English. German and Dutch:

  1. Stage A:
    • *(Iz) ne kumedi. (Proto-Germanic)
    • Er ni kumit (niowiht). (Late Old High German)
    • He ne kumet (niewiht). (Old Dutch)
    • ne cymþ (nāwiht). (Old English)
    • In these last three cases, negation could be reinforced with the word between parentheses, which meant ‘not any thing’.
      • ne + io + wiht for OHG
      • ne + ie + wiht for OD
      • ne + ā + wiht for OE
  2. Stage B:
  3. Stage C:
    • Er kommt nicht. (modern German)
    • Hij komt niet. (modern Dutch)
    • He cometh not. (Early Modern English)

Of course, Modern English uses ”He does not come” with an additional ”do”, which could be analysed as the repetition of Jespersen’s cycle.