Published August 26, 2022 | Version v1
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Revisiting negindefinite pronouns (and related comparative concepts)

  • 1. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology


Revisiting negindefinite pronouns (conference abstract)

The general grammatical terms used in theoretical comparative linguistics are often understood according to salient exemplars, but if there is no clear definition, misunderstandings are bound to arise. Thus, Penka (2011: 14) misunderstands Haspelmath’s (2005) cross-linguistic study because she thinks that her use of “negative indefinite” is the same as Haspelmath’s, whereas Haspelmath has a much broader use (as explained in Haspelmath 1997: 194-199). This problem is noted and discussed by van der Auwera & Van Alsenoy (2016:  480-481), who also elaborate on the identification of “negative polarity indefinites” in different languages, as well as the notion of “negative concord”. Haspelmath, by contrast, had deliberately avoided this latter term (1997: 214), but of course it is used all the time, by linguists of different communities (e.g. de Swart & Sag 2002). So “negative concord” is an entrenched part of our terminology, but how exactly is it understood cross-linguistically?

     In this talk, I revisit the various terms that have been used in the literature and propose definitions for them that can be applied to all languages using the same criteria. I will distinguish “negindefinites” from direct-negation indefinites and negative-polarity indefinites, and I will define “concord negindefinites” (often called “negative concord items”) as a subtype of negindefinites.

     This approach is orthogonal to the attempt to provide satsifying semantic analyses of these various constructions (e.g. Zeijlstra 2020), and I will show that it logically precedes an attempt to generalize such semantic analyses to different languages. For cross-linguistic comparison, there is no way around general terms that are defined uniformly across languages, and I will argue that establishing cross-linguistic generalizations of the syntactic patterns is independent of the optimal semantic-syntactic analyses of particular languages.

     What I do here is primarily a foundational contribution to the methodology of comparative negative concord research, which in no way conflicts with substantive theories (about particular languages or about possible innate building blocks of semantics or syntax). What is relatively unusual here is the idea that the development of a consistent terminology is not dependent on finding the correct theory of negative concord.


de Swart, Henriëtte & Sag, Ivan A. 2002. Negation and negative concord In Romance. Linguistics and Philosophy 25(4). 373–417. (doi:10.1023/A:1020823106639)

Haspelmath, Martin. 1997. Indefinite pronouns. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2005. Negative indefinite pronouns and predicate negation. In Haspelmath, Martin & Dryer, Matthew S. & Gil, David & Comrie, Bernard (eds.), The world atlas of language structures, 466–469. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (

Penka, Doris. 2011. Negative indefinites. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van der Auwera, Johan & Van Alsenoy, Lauren. 2016. On the typology of negative concord. Studies in Language 40(3). 473–512. (doi:10.1075/sl.40.3.01van)

Zeijlstra, Hedde. 2020. Negative quantifiers. In Déprez, Viviane & Espinal, M. Teresa (eds.), The Oxford handbook of hegation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198830528.013.13)



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