When no doesn’t mean no

Some time ago John Reed shot me a message suggesting a post on expletive no in Spanish. It’s an interesting topic and a good one to summarize.

Which no are we talking about?

“Hasta que no existan precios asequibles, no habrá vuelos comerciales a la luna.”

Of course, all of us who speak or work in Spanish are clear on the fact that only the second “no” actually means no. So what’s the deal with the first “no”?

If it doesn’t mean no, then what does it mean?

The additional no does not contribute meaning, but rather offers a greater expressive value to the phrase. It’s similar to the use of a él in the sentence Le dijo a él que vendría. (Example from El País) Since we have the clitic pronoun le, the phrase a él is redundant… and yet there are occasions when the we want both.

Well, sometimes we want more than one negative term in phrase.

Why does it exist?

Instances of modern day expletive negation are a holdover from this Old Spanish requirement of pre-verbal negation.

This ambiguous no comes from a change in the negation system of Spanish around the fifteenth century.  Spanish had required the use of pre-verbal negation and negative words or phrases functioned as negative polarity items–they came with a no. So, for example, ni phrases need a pre-verbal no.

Ex: No vivo [ni en Bhutan ni en Madagascar].

Around the 15th century, the language changed and these negative phrases no longer needed a no, and when that additional bit of negation was used, it was used for emphasis as part of the general use of negative concord.

If we have Old Spanish experts out there with more details, please feel free to enlighten us!

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