Research in Focus: George Walkden

Over a series of blogs we have been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from  network member George Walkden of the Universität Konstanz

When speakers of two languages come into contact with one another, many things can happen. One well-known outcome is that languages “borrow” words from one another. Words aren’t the only part of a language that’s affected by language contact, however. Languages can also influence each other’s grammatical structure: pronunciation, morphology (how words are put together) and syntax (how sentences are put together). This post is about one syntactic change that might be due in part to language contact: how English expresses negation.

All languages have a way of turning a positive sentence – like I will see you soon – into a negative sentence (I will not see you soon). English uses the particle not for negation, but it wasn’t always this way. In Old English, sentences were negated by sticking the particle ne in front of the verb, with the word not nowhere to be seen. During the early Middle English period (1150-1325), ne was joined by not, and both words were used together to express negation. Soon after that, ne started to disappear, and not was left on its own. There are thus three stages to this change:

Stage 1: ne will see you soon (Old English to Middle English)

Stage 2: ne will not see you soon (Middle English)

Stage 3: I will not see you soon (Middle English onwards)

These changes don’t happen overnight. All the interesting action happens during the Middle English period, though, particularly Early Middle English. In this period we find texts that display all three variants – Stages 1, 2 and 3 – alongside one another, and that’s what I and my co-author Donald Morrison wanted to investigate. In our published article on this change, we try to answer two questions. First, where did Stage 3 emerge? In other words, where was ne lost first? Secondly, why did this change happen (where and when it did)?

The maps in Figures A-D show the course of the change over windows of 50 years. In the pies, Stage 1 is blue, Stage 2 is red, and Stage 3 is green. Each pie represents a single text, and the bigger the pie, the more negative sentences the text contains. What can be seen from these maps is that there’s very little Stage 3 before 1300. In Figure D, however, representing the period 1300-1350, we suddenly see quite a lot of Stage 3. Figure D is different in another way, though: it’s the first map in which we see texts from the northeast of England. Since there’s clearly quite a lot more Stage 3 (i.e. quite a lot less use of ne) in the north and east, we can safely assume this is where the change began.

Figure A: England 1150-1199. Here we mainly see only Stage 1 (blue) and Stage 2 (red), with little sign of Stage 3 (green).

What’s special about the north and east of England, though? This is where language contact comes in. It’s by now fairly well established, based mainly on archaeological and linguistic evidence, that a lot of Norse speakers from Scandinavia settled in this area of England between about 865 and 1042. They brought their language with them, so that Norse would have been spoken in communities across wide areas of the east and north of the country – especially in what is now Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. It’s hard to know much about the language these people spoke, because they didn’t have a tradition of writing things down. However, based on the Norse written in Scandinavia we can be fairly confident that this language already used Stage 3. The only difference is that they didn’t use the word not – but they used a particle, ekki, which behaves syntactically just like not. (For instance, it follows auxiliaries like will, must and am, rather than preceding them like ne did.)

Figure B: England 1200-1249. There are more texts from this period, but still very little Stage 3.


Our theory is that the population of Norse speakers in the northeast helped to catalyse the change towards Stage 3. When people speak a second language, especially if it’s one they’ve learned as an adult, features of their first language are often subconsciously transferred into it. Norse speakers of English – before Norse in England died out entirely, sometime after 1100 – would have used not rather than ne because it fitted better with what they were used to doing in their native language.

Figure C: England 1250-1299. More texts now show examples of Stage 3, but the overall number is still very small


Of course, the theory can’t be proven: we just don’t know enough about what was going on in England at the time, especially in the northeast. Still, all the pieces of the puzzle (archaeological, linguistic, textual) fit together. And if we’re right, then we have yet another example of how English throughout its history has been shaped by the mouths and minds of multilingual speakers.

Figure D: England 1300-1349. Stage 3 (green) is substantially represented for the first time, especially in the North.



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