Maybe this question is stupid, but I came to wonder:

Why do all negating words start with the letter n?

This is the case in all languages I know of.

  • 3
    I'm sure your idea is completely right, if you sample only words that start with n, in which case all negating words start with the letter n. But in fact lots of negating words start with a- (forms 2&3), ex-, in- (form 1). Nov 17, 2013 at 17:11
  • 7
    Not all words that imply negation start with N. That's true. Negation is a very big phenomenon. But there are an awful lot of words in an awful lot of languages that are important negatives and start with N. That's true, too, and the reason -- in Indo-European languages, anyway -- is that they -- as well as un-, in-, and a- -- all come from the same Proto-Indo-European root *ne-. Nov 17, 2013 at 17:22
  • 2
    To add to @JohnLawler’s comment (in case of link death, etc.), even the negating prefixes a-, in-, and un- come from this *ne-. They represent the zero grade, (which in Greek and Indo-Iranian became a, in Italic developed a front vowel in front of it and went to in, and in Germanic developed a back vowel in front of it to become un). So they historically begin with an n, even if they don’t in the modern languages. Nov 17, 2013 at 18:13
  • 2
    I offer Greek for the word of refusal, "No": όχι (óchi). I don't know whether this derived from the negative prefix α though (and that's probably out-of-scope for ELU.SE), but it appears on the face of it not to have much to do with n.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 17, 2013 at 18:37
  • 1
    Confusingly, the Greek for ‘yes’ is ‘Ναί’. Nov 17, 2013 at 18:58

2 Answers 2


As John Lawler has indicated in a comment, most negating words in Indo-European languages derive ultimately from the root *ne-.

In non-IE languages, negative words take other forms, eg Hebrew לֺא (lo' = "not") or אין ('eyn' = "there isn't") or Turkish yok ("there isn't") or Georgian არ (ar = "not").

And even in IE languages, there are exceptions which have arisen in other ways, eg French pas, ("not", "none") Welsh ddim (ditto), Danish ikke, ("not").

  • 1
    Somewhat embarrassingly, I do not know the etymology of Welsh ddim, but the French and Danish words at least are in origin simple nouns that were used together with the simple negator ne (as is the case with ‘not’ in English, for that matter). French still retains the negation in formal language (where pas is not the negating factor itself, but the negation-specifier, still seen as a pseudo-noun), though of course Danish has utterly lost it, as well as its original meaning. Nov 18, 2013 at 0:10
  • Just realised that last sentence doesn't make sense. To clarify: Danish has completely lost the negation and the original meaning of the noun ikke (which was ‘trifle, detail’, much like English ‘wight’, which underlies the negation ‘not’ < ‘naught’ < OE nawiht < *ne ā wiht ‘not ever a wight’). Nov 18, 2013 at 11:47
  • The pattern is exactly the same for Welsh ddim. They're all instances of the Jespersen cycle. Indeed, English not is also the result of that cycle, the original negative element "ne" having been lost. (I suspect that this is true of German nicht as well, but I haven't researched it).
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 18, 2013 at 17:33
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    By the way, the apposite modern reflex of wiht is whit, rather than wight. Not a whit is still a recognisable phrase. Wight does derive from wiht, but (until revived by imitators of Tolkien for a kind of ghoul), meant a person, not a thing.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 18, 2013 at 17:36

There is more to "a particle that negates or inverts the value of the stem of the word" than just the letter n.

The concept is dealt with in some detail on Wikipedia, mainly under:

and Privative a

In Ancient Greek grammar, privative a (also known as privative alpha; in Latin, α prīvātīvum, in Greek, α στερητικόν) is the prefix a- that expresses negation or absence (e.g., a-theos, a-typical). It is derived from a Proto-Indo-European syllabic nasal *n̥- , the zero ablaut grade of the negation *ne, i.e. /n/ used as a vowel. For this reason, it appears as an- before vowels (e.g. an-alphabetism, an-esthesia, an-archy).1 It shares the same root with the Greek prefix or ne, in Greek νη or νε, that is also privative (e.g. ne-penthe).

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