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The Disappearance of 'ne' in French.

Mind you that this only applies to spoken French, however linguists predict that the 'ne' in negation (as in 'ne' and 'pas' or 'ne' and 'que') will disappear from the French language in the near future. For example:

    Correct way: Il ne faut pas toucher à ça!
    You mustn't touch that!

    Incorrect/spoken way: Il faut pas toucher à ça!

This is true for Québec and France (I am unsure of other Francophone countries, but I'd imagine that it'd be the same for...say, Switzerland).

See also: French adverbs of Negation

The disappearance of 'ne' in 'ne... pas' is paradoxical, because it's the most important part in the negation.

'ne' comes from the Latin 'non', which means 'no', while 'pas' comes from the Latin 'passum', which means 'step'. The Romans used to say 'non passum ire' to mean 'do not go one step', i.e 'do not go'. This usage was extended to every kind of negation in French, so that 'ne... pas' became the equivalent of the Latin 'non'. The speakers forgot the original meaning of 'passum', and, nowadays, few Frenchmen know that 'pas' was not part of the negation 1000 years ago.

If a Frenchman says 'J'irai pas chez vous' and means 'I won't go to your place', you may answer to him : 'Donc, vous viendrez chez moi' (so, you will come to my place). He will stare at you with strange eyes...

Update after Gritchka's writeup below: what I said about "pas" is true about other negative words in French. For example, Michel Bréal gives a list of negative words that had positive meanings in Latin or old French:

pas: Latin passum (see above)
point: Latin punctum (cf English "point")
rien: Latin res (thing)
plus: Latin plus
aucun: Latin aliquem unum (someone)
personne: Latin persona
jamais: Latin jam magis

Because these words are usually considered as negative, there is little place for confusion, except with "plus". In written French, "j'en veux plus" may mean "I want more of it" or its opposite: "I don't want it any more". But the confusion disappears in oral French, because the final "s" in "plus" is mute when (and only when) the word is negative!

That is very odd indeed. In classic French literature (the kind of stuff we study in class) the pas is most likely to be left out while the ne implies negation. This is also true of some French poetry. I would like to hear why linguists think pas is disappearing from French. Perhaps the English form of negation with the negative coming after the verb is having an effect?

The loss of the negative ne is not just a recent colloquialism, because the adverbs may be used as answers (in standard French):

Je ne vois rien. 'I (can) see nothing.'
Qu'est-ce que vous voyez? 'What can you see?'
Rien. 'Nothing.'

This is fine if we think in English terms as rien = 'nothing' and jamais = 'never'. But they began life as emphatic forms:

Je ne marche. 'I'm not walking.'
Je ne marche pas. 'I'm not walking a step.'
Je ne mange mie. 'I'm not eating a crumb.'
Je ne bois goutte. 'I'm not drinking a drop.'
Je ne vois personne. 'I can't see a (single) person.'

Now mie and goutte are absent from modern French, rien and jamais have clearly negative meaning, pas is more commonly the negative than the word 'step'; but personne is still quite plainly the word 'person'. So you get what sounds quite oddly ambiguous to an English learner's ear:

Je ne vois personne. 'I (can) see no-one.'
Qui voyez-vous? 'Whom can you see?'
Personne. 'No-one.' -- or, 'A person'??
(In reality: Une personne. = 'A person')

Of course it presumably doesn't bother the French. But it bothers me.

Disclaimer. I don't know any real French, I know only school and textbook French. Whether there is ever any problem like this in the colloquial language, I have no idea: thbz assures me the distinction between Personne and Une personne is clear.

The reason this happens is because of a phenomenon known as Jespersen's cycle. Many languages, including English, have gone and are going through a cycle where the original word for negation is lost and replaced by a new word, going through a period where the two negative words co-exist.

Here is an example of how it happened in English:

Old English: ic ne seah
Middle English: I ne saugh nawiht
Early Modern English: I saw not.

Compare with what's going with French right now:

Old French: jeo ne dis
Standard French: je ne dis pas
Colloquial French: je dis pas

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