French "pas"

by Adam Bieganski, 6 years ago

What is the story with French double-barrel negation (ne-verb-pas)?

French Negation

I remember from high school French lessons how the French negation was a bit "funny" - you had to remember about the pas after the verb, for example:

FR: Je ne sais pas.

EN: I don't know.

PL: (Ja) nie wiem.

This is, as I have just found out, known as the French sandwich:

French sandwich

Remembering the ne before the verb wasn't that problematic; after all - Polish nie is in the same spot. So is the English not, albeit contracted and accompanied by the quirky supporting do (the do support is another story I'm hopefully going to write about).

Being a native Polish speaker, and a confident English speaker at that time, I struggled a bit with this notion of that redundant word which was nevertheless necessary lest one wanted to sound like some sort of a walking Google Translate (which didn't actually exist at that time; am I old?)

Not being at that time too familiar with German, which has the tendency to put things in a "reverse" order (it's reverse from the Modern English point of view, not in any global sense):

Ich weiss nicht.

and also not really making the connection with the archaic way of forming negative sentences in English:

I know not.

I thought there must have been something to this French double-barrel negation. Especially that it is the ne that seems to correlate with the English not, Polish nie and German nicht - not the pas.

Only many years later did I find out what I'm going to describe here now.

How the French pas Came About

It turns out the vieux jeu (see what I did here?) French had the good old simple negation that its parent Latin had also had, and you could just say:

Je ne sais.

without sounding funny or drunk or foreign.

Sidenote: Interestingly enough, the "standard" way of negating the verb in a sentence in Latin would be to put non in front of it, e.g.:

Non scribo.

I don't write / I'm not writing.

In Latin, similarly to, say, Spanish, or Polish, the subject pronoun can be omitted, since the verb is inflected enough to convey the person information. In English you don't normally omit the subject pronoun, since conjugation is really vestigial; in French it is sufficiently weak (you know the way in French you don't really pronounce most of the word endings anyway) for the subject pronoun to be required as well.

However - Latin has (had?) a "dedicated" word for not knowing: nescire (see the ne there?)

OK, so back to the French pas. Un pas is actually a concrete noun in French - and it means a step (it comes from passus in Latin). In Proto-French people would normally say:

Je ne marche.

I'm not walking.

but to add emphasis, they would say:

Je ne marche pas.

I'm not walking a step.

They would also say things like:

Je ne bois goutte.

I don't drink a drop.

Je ne mange mie.

I don't eat a crumb.

Over time, presumably because the ne could never be stressed, people would use those emphasisers more and more. So often in fact, that the emphasis effect would gradually diminish - and the pas would sound like something that just has to be there. And what does "has to be there" mean in language? Of course - grammar!

Side note: A question might arise here - to whom would [the pas] sound like something that just has to be there?

Well, usually in such cases it's to people who are learning the language (natively), that is - children and teens. I'm not sure this was the case here, but a somewhat related example would be the verb "to verse" in American English.

You can hear young people say:

So your team's playing football tomorrow? Who are you versing?

And it means "Whom are you playing against?" How, you ask?

Those young language philistines must have heard this a lot on TV:

Team A versus team B

You and I know that it is in fact versus, and it's from Latin, and it is a preposition, and means against.

But it sounds exactly the same as verses, and it fits the subject-verb-object structure perfectly, doesn't it?

My spell checker is of course underlining versing - such a word does not "exist". But perhaps it's just a matter of time?


OK, so it turns out I was onto something with the redundancy of the pas. It wasn't there at some point, and the ne alone was enough. Today, however, it is no longer "redundant", in the sense that French grammar requires that it be there, lest you sound strange and difficult to understand for native French speakers.

In fact - mainly in spoken French today - the ne is omitted, because it is now the pas that does the job of negating the sentence.

This process of "ordinary" (concrete) words becoming parts of grammar is called grammaticalisation by linguists. Since it's a relatively new field of research, there is a lot of discussion what this process actually encompasses, whether it is strictly unidirectional, etc. - but the fact is that it is understood that this is the way grammar emerges: concrete words become part of grammar by losing its original, "tactile" meaning, and starting to convey (more) abstract concepts. "Not walking a single step" became grammatical negation is the case of the French pas.

As prof. John McWhorter put it (quoting from memory):

When you're sitting under a tree, naked, trying to invent language, you are going to come up with words for plants, animals, the sea - all these things. But how are you going to come up with the word for about?

Source: [Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language] (http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/understanding-linguistics-the-science-of-language.html)

Grammaticalisation is a natural process, i.e. there is no "grand design" behind it, it is not planned. That's why it seems to rather complicate language, or add redundancy. At the same time - it makes it more expressive and layered and flexible and nuanced, which is what a natural human language needs.

Invention of Grammar This is not how grammar was invented, and not even what grammar actually is. Source: explosm.net


A sort of microcosm of grammaticalisation could be the so-called creole languages, or creoles for short.

A creole is a fully-featured language that arises when mutually incomprehensible languages "meet" somewhere - e.g. in a colony or on a plantation.

In the beginning what emerges when people who have to communicate but don't share a common language, is a pidgin - a simplified "language" with barely any grammar, good enough for conveying simple ideas with the help of a lot of gesticulation and context dependence. This is because adults don't really learn languages well, especially when learning a language is not their main activity, and they don't have textbooks, teachers or any such help.

The word pidgin allegedly comes from a Chinese rendition of the English word business - since pidgins came about as means of doing business - i.e. trade between between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages.

Adults, when "inventing" a language in such circumstances, are only able to go as far as a pidgin. However, if the situation of cohabitance of different ethnic groups is permanent, the pidgin will sooner or later get into the hands of children - who actually acquire language, rather than learning it; which is to say - they have their natural propensity for grammar, and will therefore infer the "missing" grammar from the broken utterances of adults, and fill in the blanks by bouncing their experimental sentences off one another.

Tok Pisin

Let's look at Tok Pisin for example - this is a creole spoken by about a million people throughout Papua New Guinea. It is actually referred to by its native speakers as "Pidgin", when they speak English, making it the sort of "proverbial" pidgin. But it is actually a fully-fledged language, and a creole, because it originated from the pidgin used by labourers on plantations in Queensland, drawn from New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Solomon Islands, etc.

The name itself comes from English talk business, but tok has a much broader meaning (it means speech, language). And Pisin is another rendition of business - Tok Pisin is not a language one uses when talking about a certain physiological function...

What's more interesting, however, is how Tok Pisin's grammar works.

To mark past tense in Tok Pisin, you use the word bin (from English been), so you can say:

Mipela i bin go long blekmaket.

We went to the black market.

Mipela means we, because -pela is a plural suffix (and an adjective marker, too). So the personal pronouns are:

1st exclusivemimipela
1st inclusiveyumipela / yumi

So, it's all nice and tidy, except for "they", which is ol (from English all) - that's a "natural" wrinkle you would expect, since the language is not designed. Ol is also used for pluralising nouns:

man - man

ol man - men

Also, Tok Pisin marks the "clusivity" of the first person plural - something than English does not do (and perhaps lacks to some extent).

In Tok Pisin you mark whether someone invited "us including the person you are talking to" or "just us, excluding your interlocutor":

Fred i bin singautim yumi long pati.

Fred invited us (including you) to the party.

Fred i bin singautim mipela long pati.

Fred invited us (excluding you) to the party.

This distinction is sometimes useful, and is done in English in a descriptive way, as required, but in Tok Pisin you have to make that distinction - which means one more thing to keep in mind, which means, well, more complexity.

Possession is expressed with the preposition bilong (from English belong). So:

Mamapapa bilong mi = My parents

Husat nem bilong yu? = What is your name?

Back to Europe

Grammaticalisation happens all the time and in all natural languages. Here are some examples.

In German:

Manchmal muss man Kompromisse machen.


Sometimes one must compromise.

The indefinite personal pronoun man evolved from the concrete noun Mann.

In English, in the times of Shakespeare, I'm going to literally meant that I would travel to another location to do something, so you could say:

I'm going to see the king.


I'm going to have bad dreams now.

would sound slightly odd, unless you were actually walking to your bedroom with the intention of dreaming nightmares.

It so happened that the intention part stayed, but the physical movement became unnecessary. In the end to be going to became part of grammar: a future tense.

Again - since this happened naturally, as opposed to being planned or designed, it did not replace the "proper" future tense (I will) or the present tense expressing the future (e.g. "I am seeing him in a week") - it is sometimes interchangeable with those, but not always, and makes the language richer in shades of meaning yet a bigger headache for adult learners...

Interestingly, the "proper" future tense marker - will - also evolved from a verb that had a more concrete meaning.

Old English verb willan, which meant to want/to wish, a full verb (i.e. it had its past tense, etc.), became grammaticalised into the modal verb will, the marker of the future tense, and it lost the "intention" meaning (it no longer means the subject wants or wishes something).

The form willan is the Old English infinitive form - Old English was an inflected language, and it had full-blown conjugation (verbs had endings depending on person and number). Even the infinitive form had its own ending: -an. The verb's root was actually will.

In fact - another Germanic language, one called German - still has a "full" verb wollen, whose 1st- and 3rd-person singular present tense form is will, and it still means want/wish.

Also - in English you can say something like:

Imagine, if you will, a perfectly streamlined language.

This will here does not mark future tense, it is still the old will meaning want.

And then he was like...

And then he was like, "Check this out!"

What you see above is grammaticalisation happening right in front of our eyes. The to be like construction used to introduce a quote is called the "colloquial quotative like". And it is still colloquial, but like it or not, what's colloquial today is very often allowed tomorrow, and the norm they day after...

What About Simplification

As I've mentioned before, grammaticalisation is a natural process, and as such it's based on the "Brownian motion" of speakers' way of speaking. But since there is no "grand design" behind it, there is no "direction" to it in the sense that the net outcome will be a more streamlined, simplified language.

More often than not language becomes more complex - there is more things you have to trace and mark in order to sound "grammatical". Different past tense endings evolved by way of grammaticalisation - and now you have to memorise -em, -eś, -iśmy, -iście, if you are learning the Polish past tense as an adult. Wouldn't a single ending for all persons and numbers, and a pronoun, suffice?

This is what goes through the mind of every adult learning a foreign language - couldn't conjugation, for example, be simpler? Couldn't I just go:

I learn, you learn, we learn, they learn...

Wait a minute! This is actually the way it is in English, isn't it? How did this happen that what used to be a "highly" inflected Germanic language (Old English), became Modern English that only has that "s" in the third person singular, and everything else is just like the infinitive? Why is today's German still like this:

ich lernewir lernen
du lernstihr lernt
er/sie/es lerntsie lernen

while English is just:

I learn we learn
you learnyou learn
he/she/it learnsthey learn


The answer has something to do with adults learning a language and the Vikings, and should be an interesting topic for another post...

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