The evolution of negation is often discussed in terms of a grammaticalization process dubbed Jespersen Cycle by Dahl (1979). Within this process, negation markers are seen to originate from emphatic elements in the negative phrase which gradually lose their sense of emphasis and are eventually interpreted as general verbal negators. Croft (1991) has suggested negative existentials as another source for negation markers. This latter author presented his hypothesis under the name Negative Existential Cycle (hereafter NEC). Despite recent renewed interest in cyclical processes in language change and negative cycles in particular cf. (van Gelderen 2008; van Gelderen 2009), the cycle suggested by Croft (1991) has received relatively little attention. In order to examine the realizations of this cycle from an extensive cross-linguistic perspective we, Ljuba Veselinova (University of Stockholm) and Arja Hamari (University of Helsinki), have started a collaborative effort; we are now inviting other scholars to join in.

Negative existentials are loosely defined as lexical expressions which indicate non-existence in an absolute way. Some examples include Hungarian nincs, Turkish yok, Russian net, cf. Veselinova (2013) for a detailed overview. Veselinova has devoted a number of articles to a critical examination of the NEC based on data from several different samples, cf. (Veselinova 2010, Veselinova 2014, Veselinova 2015, Veselinova 2016). In these works, she tests the NEC by applying it to a sample of 95 genealogically and geographically independent languages and also to comparative data from four families from Eurasia (Slavonic, Uralic, Turkic and Dravidian), one from North Africa (Berber), and one from Oceania (Polynesian). Several generalizations emerge from these tests.

First, negative existentials tend to take over very specific parts of verbal negation, that is, they can come to be used as verbal negators for a specific TAM category or other well delimited context. These partial take-overs of verbal negation tend to last for very long periods of time. Conversely, complete take-overs of verbal negation by the negative existential occur very seldom within the time span for reasonable reconstruction.

Second, negative existentials enter the domain of SN via several different pathways. These include (i) subordination processes and predicate concatenation; (ii) the reanalysis of an external negator into a negator external to the proposition; (iii) a direct inheritance of a construction; (iv) the use of negative existentials with nominalized verb forms, cf. (1) below for a brief example. Among these pathways, only (iv) shows a great extent of cross-linguistic recurrence, cf. (1) from Selkup.

Third, negative existentials have the greatest chance to change into general negators in languages where standard negation is expressed by means of a complex clause.

Fourth, negative existentials are constantly renewed. If an older negative existential is reinterpreted as a general negation marker, typically a new one is already emerging. Thus the distinction between negation of actions and negation of existence is constantly maintained.

The publishing house Lexington Books, are interested in putting out a book on this topic. In order to achieve a wider cross-linguistic coverage, we are planning an edited volume where the NEC is tested on a family based sample with a world-wide coverage. To this end we are now seeking collaboration with other scholars who have data and expertise on specific language families and are interested in the issues outlined above and recapitulated here as follows:

  • negative existentials and their interaction with standard negation
  • processes whereby negative existentials break into the domain of standard negation
  • the time duration of the stages in a negative existential cycle
  • are there any language specific characteristics which trigger or halt the cycle
  • the constant renewal of negative existentials

The compilation of the planned volume will be preceded by a 2 day workshop to be held in Stockholm on May 4-5 2017.

If you are interested in participating, please send one page abstract (500-700 words) to

Important dates

Deadline for abstract submission: October 15, 2016
Notification of acceptance: November 1, 2016
Workshop: May 4-5, 2017, Department of Linguistics, Stockholm, Sweden
Confirmed participants:
Professor Elly van Gelderen, University of Arizona
Professor Johan van der Auwera, University of Antwerpen
Assistant Professor Thiago Chacon, University of Brasilia

The timeline for the volume will be discussed at the workshop. Please note that your submission will be considered for the volume even if you cannot participate in the workshop.

We gratefully acknowledge funding from a cooperation grant for collaboration between Stockholm University and University of Helsinki which enables to organize the workshop.


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Dahl, Ö. 1979. Typology of sentence negation. LINGUISTICS 17.79-106. 
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Güldemann, T. 1999. The Genesis of Verbal Negation in Bantu and Its Dependency on Functional Features of Clause Types, ed. by J.-M. Hombert & L.M. Hyman, 545-87. Standford, CA: Center Study Language & Information. 
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—. 2016. The Negative Existential Cycle through the lens of comparative data. The Linguistic Cycle Continued, ed. by E. van Gelderen, 139-87. Amsterdam/New York: John Benjamins Publishing Co. 
Veselinova, L. (with H. Skirgård). 2015. Special Negators in the Uralic Languages: Synchrony, Diachrony and Interaction with Standard Negation. Negation in Uralic Languages, ed. by M. Miestamo, A. Tamm & B. Wagner-Nagy, 547-99. Amsterdam/New York: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 
Willis, D., C. Lucas & A. Breitbath. 2013. Comparing diachronies of negation. The History of Negation in the Languages of Europe and the Mediterranean, ed. by D. Willis, C. Lucas & A. Breitbath, 1-50. Oxford: Oxford University Press.