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What are some strategies for making affirmative and negative sentences as distinct as possible?

The motivation for this question is an annoying pair of words in English: can and can't. They frequently sound very similar in rapid speech.

There's also one attested language, Wyandot, described here, that appears to lack dedicated negative morphemes and instead has an irrealis and a contrastive morpheme that can convey negation in certain contexts but don't have to.

If you wanted to do the opposite and maximize the contrast between afifrmative and negative sentences, what are some strategies for doing so?

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To maximize, it seems like at least you'd want to associate negation with:

  • independent words
  • conjugation/declension
  • your loudest phonemes
  • distinct word order
  • distinct prosody

You could have a number of independent markers/words as mentioned above.

Turkish has verbs which always negate, and Turkish verbs usually end the thought: e.g., 'değil' for "is not [noun or adjective]"; 'yok' for 'there is not [something].' For negating verbs, it has an infix as part of the conjugation. Reflecting back your point about 'can't,' as a non-native speaker, I can miss this negative infix sometimes. This, even though it is higher on the sonority hierarchy (easier to hear) than the plosive T you point out in 'can't.' (It uses M and a variable vowel.)

So, if you wanted to change a conjugation to express "not," say, instead of a T or even an M, you could try using the loudest sounds in your set (usually wide-mouthed vowels?), ha ha.

You could change word order for negated sentences. We do that for questions. I have noticed. Have you noticed? [rhetorical ;) ]

Also, you could reserve a certain, unusual tone, pitch, stress pattern, etc., for negating, like how it's pretty easy to hear the lilt we put at the end of a question? Not that this is exclusive of the other options, but imagine to say, "You can't have a muffin," you deepen your voice as much as you can and borderline-sing, "You can have a muffin." If people associated deep voice with negation like we associate that rising tone with questions, that'd be pretty hard to miss.

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Looking a bit further down that WALS page you linked, I come across the Noni language, which allows as many as three negative markers in the same sentence:

kɛ́  bɔ́   nǔ  géé  kfun .
NEG 3p NEG FUT FUT₁ hit  NEG

They will not hit (later today).

It seems to me that you can’t get much more distinct than this! (Though there is such a thing as having too much marking: all examples of triple negative marking on WALS, including Noni, have at least one marker optional.)

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One strategy that comes immediately into my mind is the use of multiple negative markers like in French ne ... pas, if you miss one of them, you will catch another one. Multiple negation being equivalent to single negation is a frequent feature of natural languages, but it is often optional to use more than one marker of negativity.

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Use double negative, such as in Slavic languages (note that the Romance variant is weaker) - this is actually a misnomer, it is a negative concord where in a negative sentence, everything that depends on the negated verb and can be negated has to be negated. This is usually limited to certain pronouns and adverbs, though.

For example, Slovak for nobody ever helped anyone would be


nikdo     nikdy  nikomu     nepomohol
nobody    never  nobody-DAT help-PAST-3P-NEG

It helps most of those negated pronouns and adverbs (and verbs) begin with ne- or ni-.

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If you want to go extreme, you could use different roots for negative and positive verbs.

I don't know if this is done in any natural language, but it wouldn't be too strange if you consider how Engish treats adjectives: 'more large' is typically expressed by 'larger', while 'less large' is expressed by 'smaller'. Many, if not most, common adjectives have antonyms with completely different roots! You can of course also have a negative affix (circumfix and/or transfix for maximal contrast!) to use with verbs without a proper "verb antonym", much like un- and non- are used to form English antonyms, even ad hoc ones like "non-blue" or "unpunishable".

Eglish has a few pairs like "end"/"continue", "sink"/"float" etc, but you could easily imagine there being antonyms for nearly any verb. This would drastically reduce the need for negations, and a speaker of such a language might find English use of negations for verbs as silly as we'd find "The non-ugly car is rather un-cheap, and too non-small to fit in my non-unlimited yard".

This can of course be combined with other mechanisms, but I think it goes a long way by itself as well.

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Here are two solutions to this problem that haven't been mentioned yet

  • suppletive negative forms
  • a large collection of negative polarity items

One famous example of a suppletive negative form is 有 vs 没(有) in Mandarin. Also, sign languages frequently feature many suppletive negative forms. Sign language existentials are especially prone to having suppletive/irregular negative forms. Suppletive negative forms have the advantage that the corresponding positive word form does not even appear in a negative sentence.

Negative polarity items are words that are only licensed in negative contexts, such as certain uses of yet, even, or anyone in English.

A language could have only a few words that are intrinsically negative, but many more that reliably indicate the presence of negation but don't carry a negative meaning themselves.

The language could also have many positive polarity items too; the idea being that the presence of a positive polarity item reliably indicates the absence of negation ... so by hearing one you know you're in an affirmative sentence.

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This can be accomplished in English, although it's usually looked down upon by grammarians as low class speech:

I ain't done nothing to noone / I didn't do nothing to nobody.

Although some people might feel smug pointing out that double negative theoretically cancels itself, in practical terms, if someone heard that sentence there ain't no way they'd confuse it for anything other than the speaker being very emphatic in saying "no". As I just did, when I used "ain't no way" instead of the more "proper" "isn't a way" or something similar.

So for your conlang, simply load it down with multiple negative terms or forms as it reduces the possibility of confusion of intent. To use my example again:

I didn't do something to anyone: single negative term.

Miss the contraction on did (or miss the word not if you didn't contract) and the sentence reverses in meaning.

I ain't done something to anyone: single negative term

Now the negative term is very distinct from the positive, lessening the possibility of confusion.

I ain't done nothing to anyone: two negative terms.

Harder now to extract a positive statement from that (aside from the aforementioned snooty-nosed linguistic logisticians).

I ain't done nothing to noone: three negative terms.

Again, the grammarians may have a seizure seeing that sentence, but there is no way to mistake the intent of what is being stated.

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