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Do we say it this way because of some connection with French and the "ne . . . pas," "ne . . . ni" constructions? I'm thinking that it might be a direct importation from Old French by the Normans, or perhaps this duality is a general feature of PIE languages? If anyone can clue me in I'd be grateful.

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Aut Caesar, aut nihil. – kiamlaluno Mar 28 '11 at 16:05
Um, I'm confused. If anything, you should be drawing a parallel to the French "ne... ni...". As to "ne... pas", it is more of a parallel to "not... no...", as in "we don't need no education". – RegDwigнt Mar 28 '11 at 16:05
@RegDwight I added what you said, though I kept "ne...pas" because I don't know the age of "ne...ni" and when it was formed. – Uticensis Mar 28 '11 at 16:08
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'm not quite sure what you're asking. Is it why we have negative-polarity terms for both arms of the conjunction? If so, that is something that many languages have, and certainly strikes me as natural, since both are negated.

Further, many (most?) languages allow you to insert as many negative words into a sentence as seems desirable: it's just English that has in the last few centuries acquired a bizarre rule that limits them. (Though in fact "I haven't got any" still has the negative-polarity "any", it's just not overtly negative).

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It’s not just English, really—limitations on negative markers are very common in Germanic languages. In all the Scandinavian languages (but not Icelandic), for example, multiple negatives are strictly ungrammatical (or rather, they negate the existing negations, just like prescriptionists often claim is the case for English), and the same is true of Standard German and Standard Dutch (though not Afrikaans). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 19 '13 at 5:11
@JanusBahsJacquet: Do they negate the existing negations? Or is this, as in English, a myth concocted to justify forbidding the multiple markers? – Colin Fine Sep 3 '13 at 23:11
They really do negate the existing negations. In the Scandinavian languages at least, there are also no negative-polarity variants of ‘some’ etc., either: ‘not any’ and ‘not some’ are the same. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 4 '13 at 7:12

from old English of "not whether"

ORIGIN Middle English : alteration (by association with either) of Old English nawther, contraction of nāhwæther (from [no] + hwæther [whether])

from NOAD

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Note: I didn't downvote you. – Uticensis Mar 28 '11 at 16:00

Some hold that "neither this nor that" is in error and that the locution should be "neither this or that" because "neither" refers to "this" and "that" both; and that "neither this nor that" is a double negative making "that" be true: "not this but that." Just sayin'.

-- p

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Who hold this? I've never encountered the idea, which I find bizarre. – Colin Fine Apr 1 '11 at 10:29

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