grammaticalization of negatives/interrogatives

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Sat Mar 12 10:08:22 UTC 2005

Dear all,

In response to Gideon Goldenberg's...

>But let us return to polar questions: in colloquial Hebrew, /eifo/
>(lit. "where") is commonly used for denial (even of a negative
>statement): /eifo hevin/ (lit. "'where' did he understand") means
>"he did not understand, I don't believe that he understood", /eifo
>lo hevin/ "it cannot be, I don't believe that he did not understand,
>he just pretends so". Exactly identical is the use in Amharic of
>/mache/ "when": /mache gäbbaw/ "he did not understand (it)" ["when
>did he understand (it)?"]. In Amharic, by the way, yes-or-no questions
>would commonly refer explicitly to the positive and the negative as
>well: "Did you understand (or didn't you understand)?", "I don't know
>whether you understand and whether you don't understand", "I am ssking
>about your understanding and (about) your not understanding".
The same usage is also found in colloquial Malay/Indonesian with the
content interrogative word *mana* 'where'/'which', which can also be
used to express an emphatic denial, as in the third gloss below:

(1) Mana faham
    (a) 'Where did he understand it?'
    (b) 'Which one did he understand?'
    (c) 'No way did he understand it'

As a native speaker of Hebrew also proficient in Malay/Indonesian, I've
long been struck by this remarkable parallel, though my impression is
that the usage is more common, and accordingly less emphatic, in
Malay/Indonesian than in Hebrew.  Although this is now quite far from
Matti's original inquiry, I'd be interested to know whether there are
any other languages in which a content word has assumed a secondary
usage as a marker of emphatic denial.


David Gil

[currently in Indonesia]

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-3550321
Fax: 49-341-3550119
Email: gil at

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