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Revisiting the etymology of the Nordic negative enclitic -a/-at

Working paper
Authors Eric Lander
Place of publication Stockholm & Lund
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Swedish
Language en
Keywords negation, etymology, Jespersen's Cycle, grammaticalization
Subject categories Languages and Literature


In this paper I present and discuss the etymological hypotheses that have been put forth through the years for Norse -a/-at ‘not’, a negative particle suffixed to finite and imperative verbs, found primarily in Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian. The four main etymologies that I will evaluate are: (i) the connector/generalizing particle PGmc *-(u)hw (cf. Go. -uh), (ii) the numeral for ‘one’: PGmc *aina/*ainat- (cf. Go. ain, ainata), (iii) a reinforcer associated with various pronouns: PGmc *-ã (cf. runic eka, ika, etc.) or perhaps PGmc *-ō̃ (cf. Go. þat-a, þana, in-a, OE þon-e, hin-e, etc.), and (iv) the (negative) indefinite phrases ‘(n)ever’ and ‘(n)ever a thing’: PGmc *(n-)aiwa-/*(n-)aiwa-weht-. As we shall see below, each etymology has its share of support from scholars. However, some ideas have aged better than others. Nevertheless, it is useful to discuss all of the proposals in the literature since there are conceptual overlaps and interrelated assumptions weaving their way through the hypotheses in (i-iv). The goal of this paper is to critically assess each of these etymologies, thereby giving an overview of their respective advantages and disadvantages.

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