Zigzagging in Language History: Negation and Negative Concord in Hungarian

Katalin Gugán


At a certain stage of its history, Hungarian seems to have gone through Jespersen’s Cycle, having substituted the original PU negative auxiliary with the negative particle nem, originally an indefinite pronoun. Opinions diverge concerning the details of this process, as the negative indefinite pronouns marked with nē- /nēm- in the Northern Ob-Ugric dialects may imply that certain phases of the emergence of the negative function of the indefinite pronoun can be traced back to Proto-Ugric. Even though this seems to be the most economical reconstruction, the present paper argues that data from the Ob-Ugric languages and from Old Hungarian both question the validity of this reconstruction. Negative indefinites marked with nē- /nēm- are more likely to be innovations of the Northern Ob-Ugric dialects, and indefinites marked with né- do not seem to occur at all in negative sentences in Old Hungarian (where as quite a few other indefinites do). Therefore, this paper claims that the negative function of the particle nem developed independently in Hungarian, and also that it may have grammaticalized straight from the indefinite pronoun némi ’some(thing)’, without acquiring the negative meaning ’nothing’ prior to this process.

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