Why do so Many Negative Words Begin with N?

No, not, nothing, neither, nor, none, nil, no-one, nobody, nowhere.

Notice a pattern?

Why do so many negative words begin with N?

This of course isn’t just true of English:

Non, ni, ne, nein, nicht, nyet, nei, nada, nee etc.

What’s no negative about the letter N?

It’s not unusual for words with similar meanings to look and sound similar, but it is unusual to see so many similar words across so many different languages.

The simple answer is that all these words come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *ne-, meaning not. But, that’s all too simple. Lots of words in many languages share a basic Proto-Indo-European root, but evolved quite differently over time. Why have all these words stayed so similar?

The most common theory is that it’s due to sound symbolism. Basically, this is the idea that individual phonemes (the most basic sounds that constitute words) can contain inherent meanings. This is similar to the concepts of ideophones and onomatopoeia. With ideophones, words are linked to a fairly general feeling, and onomatopoeia is based on words replicating sounds.

Sound symbolism is a little specific though, with sounds having universal meaning. Linguists generally aren’t too fond of the idea. It’s the opposite of the basic ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, which are at the heart of modern linguistics. Saussure believed that “the sign is arbitrary,” and the sounds and words we use to represent concepts could be any sounds: we only use our native tongues’ words because we’ve all agreed to use them by consensus, as we can only communicate effectively if we all use the same words with the same meanings.

And I agree with that, basically. In a parallel universe where everything is mostly identical to ours, languages would still probably develop completely different sounds organically.

But, there’s still something to the idea of sound symbolism. For example, have a look at these two symbols:

ouba k

Which one is bouba, and which is kiki?

Regardless of your native tongue, I bet you said the shape on the left is kiki, and the one on the right is bouba. There’s something inherently sharp about the word kiki, and bouba is round, isn’t it? No-one knows exactly why we think this, but the associations seem to be almost universal. This effect is often used by proponents of sound symbolism to demonstrate that sounds can have inherent meanings, and the naming of objects is not completely arbitrary.

So perhaps that’s the case with negative words. Perhaps there is something inherently negative about the letter N at the beginning of a word. To be honest though, I’m not really convinced. I think that negation is a basic, fundamental concept, that is incredibly general and can be applied to so many aspects of our existence. Because of this, the N sound got attached to it at an early stage, and through common usage, it stuck there, throughout many different languages.

But who knows: maybe there’s a little sound symbolism at play too. While the concept may seem far-fetched, it’s hard to both prove and disprove, so perhaps it does exist. Even if I have my doubts, I’ll never say never.

12 thoughts on “Why do so Many Negative Words Begin with N?

  1. The Korean word for ‘no’ is ‘aniyo’, which has an ‘n’, but then again so does the standard word for ‘yes’, which is ‘ne’. The alternative word for ‘yes’ is ‘ye’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No wonder Greek sounds so confusing, then, with ne for yes and oxi (sounds like OK) for no? No doubt I’d probably get myself into all sorts of trouble with that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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