22 June 2003
In French, nobody is ne ... personne. Example: Il n’y a personne, there’s nobody there. But at the same time, personne does also mean person! This seems contradictory.
But it isn’t, because ne ... personne really means not a person, and so nobody, no-one.
The apparent strangeness is underlined by the fact that in the similar
case ne ... pas, the ne
part is often weakened in the spoken language:
Je ne sais pas, I don’t know, becomes Je sais pas, or even J’sais pas pronounced as [Zsep"A] or [Ssep"A].
If this also happens with personne, Je vois personne, the contradiction would become complete. I don’t know if French speakers really go that far.
Ne ... pas too can be explained from the meaning of the two words, as can many other cases:
|ne ... pas||not a step / pace||not|
|ne ... que||not that, but that||only|
|ne ... personne||not a person||nobody|
|ne ... plus||not more||no more|
|ne ... rien||not a thing / subject / object / issue||nothing|
|ne ... jamais||not ever||never|
|ne ... point||not a point||not, no|
|ne ... mie||not a crumb||nothing any more|
|ne ... goutte||not a drop||nothing at all|
|ne ... guère||not much||hardly|
Jamais without ne does really mean ever, sometime, at any time. Interestingly, Portuguese shares this apparently contradictory meaning, as the Porto Editora dictionary puts it: em tempo algum; nunca; alguma vez; nenhuma vez. This is spite of the fact that Portuguese doesn’t combine não with other words the way French does with ne. I wonder if there might have been French influence at work here.
The Portuguese word jamais originates
from a combination of
já (yet, already) and
The etymology of French jamais is similarly connected with déjà, considering
Le Petit Robert: * jamais: o XIe; de ja, lat. jam « déjà », et mais, lat. magis « déjà » * déjà: o des ja 1265; de des (dé-) et a. fr. ja « tout de suite », lat. jam; cf. jadis, jamaisand
Le Littré: * jamais: Jà, et mais dans le sens de plus ; comme qui dirait : jà plus. Bourg. jaimoi ; nivern. jaimas ; provenç. jamais ; cat. jamay ; espagn. jamas ; portug. jámais ; ital. giammai. * déjà: Dès et jà ; bourguig. degy.
(The Portuguese word mais is not to be confused with mas, which does mean the same as French mais).
By the way, despite the identical spelling, the pronunciation is different, French [Za"me] or [Za"mE], Portuguese [Za"majS].
The French word rien derives from Latin
which is the singular accusative case of
meaning thing, object, matter, affair, circumstance.
case of that word is re, which was
borrowed in English in the sense ‘in the matter of,
on the subject of, about, concerning’.
This is probably also the word Re: which appears in any subsequent
message in an e-mail or usenet-news discussion thread. Because
it is added only starting with the second message, people tend
to mistake it for an abbreviation of "reply"; and so some programs
have localised versions in which it is translated, e.g. to German
Antw, Swedish Sv.
In addition to being wrong (in my opinion anyway), this also often
causes problems, because other programs don’t recognise these
Re:s, and so create long chains like
Antw: Re: Sv: Re:.
And because Re: really means nothing in French, everything but the first message in a discussion thread is in fact null and void.