A bidirectional Optimality Theoretic analysis of multiple negative indefinites in Afrikaans

  • Kate Huddlestone Department of General Linguistics, Stellenbosch University
  • Henriëtte de Swart Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS, Utrecht University
Keywords: Negation, negative indefinites, Afrikaans, Optimality Theory, syntax-semantics interface


In the literature on negation, Afrikaans is generally categorised as a negative concord language. Unlike most other negative concord languages though, utterances containing multiple indefinites in the scope of negation are typically produced with a combination of one negative indefinite and one (or more) non-negative indefinite, or negative polarity item, as in (i). (i)      Ons het niemand ooit daar gesien nie.          we have nobody ever there pst-see sn          ‘We never saw anybody there.’However, although prohibited in formal, standard Afrikaans, where such utterances are prescriptively assigned a double negation meaning (Ø$x1Ø$x2) and produced with a specific prosodic contour, in colloquial Afrikaans it is also possible to produce multiple negative indefinites with a single, or negative concord, meaning, as in (ii).  (ii)    Ons het niemand nooit daar gesien nie.          we have nobody ever there pst-see sn          ‘We never saw anybody there.’ (¬$x1$x2)Standard analyses of negative concord as presented in the literature do not account for the alternation of indefinites and negative indefinites in (i) vs. (ii), or the potential availability of both negative concord and double negation readings for the utterance in (ii). Perception experiments show that grammaticality judgements, by native speakers of Afrikaans, of multiple negative indefinites presented as auditory stimuli exhibit gradient acceptability in relation to combinations of negative indefinites and non-negative indefinites. Furthermore, this experimental data indicates that listeners use sentence prosody to assist in the interpretation of potentially ambiguous sentences containing multiple negative indefinites. The gradience of acceptability of multiple negative indefinite combinations is mirrored in turn by the frequency of such constructions in a written corpus of Afrikaans. In this paper, we account for this variation in the expression and interpretation of multiple indefinites in the scope of negation within the framework of stratified bidirectional Optimality Theory (OT). Such an analysis fills a gap in the typology of negation in accounting for alternation between negative and non-negative indefinites in the production of standard and colloquial Afrikaans, as observed through corpus and experimental data, and allows for a prosodically constrained ambiguity between single and double negation readings.


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