Monday, October 29, 2012

Horn and Kato: Introduction to Negation and Polarity (2000)

My "negative polarity" reading list currently includes
So far, I've read a chunk of Ladusaw's thesis and the introduction to Negation and Polarity.

The Dull Edge of Negation

Horn and Kato quote an interesting observation by Otto Jespersen (1917) about the historical trajectory of negation marking:
The history of of negative expressions in various languages makes us witness the following curious fluctuation: the original negative adverb is first weakened, then found insufficient and therefore strengthened, generally through some additional word, and this in its turn may be felt as the negative proper and may then in course of time be subject to the same development as the original word. (Jespersen 1917, p. 4, quoted by Horn and Kato on p. 3)
The pragmatic choice of word is thus always in a kind of arms race with itself because of its feedback to semantics.

We see the same phenomenon with curses, politeness markers, and slang words – all of which regularly have to be discarded because their original force wears off. A similar thing happens with taboo concepts like disease, stupidity, or madness, which regularly have to be renamed because the last generation of terms has lost its neutral and clinical value.

The Historical Emergence of Negative Polarity

With respect to negation, Horn and Kato dub this phenomenon "Jespersen's cycle" and claim that it "plays a central role in the development of negative polarity and negative concord" (p. 3).

I am not quite sure how they imagine the mechanics of this development looks, and neither of their contributions to the volume seem to focus specifically on this (etymological) question. However, somebody at the ACLC recently told me that it's only by recent convention that the Dutch word hoeven ("need") has become ungrammatical in positive contexts, and this seems to support their claim.

Another case that might support this case is the existence of very obviously conventional negative polarity items like lift a finger, hurt a fly, and so on. As with many insults and politeness markers, these were presumably scalar implicatures before they were turned into conventional lexical items.

Notice also the syntactic parallel between such cases and the traditional examples of negative polarity:
  • Would you mind helping me?
  • *You would mind helping me, wouldn't you?
  • You wouldn't mind helping me, would you?
compared to
  • Do you want anything?
  • *You want anything, don't you?
  • You don't want anything, do you?
I don't know how far this analogy could be stretched, but there does seem to be something buried here.

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