Pas, mie, goutte…

Pas, mie, goutte…

pah, mee, goot…  Click below to hear an attempt at 13th-century pronunciation!

Not, not, not…

One more quick look at Old French. (See yesterday’s post.) We said we’d talk for a moment about how the negative was expressed (well, I said!).

In Old French, the most common way to make a comment negative was to use a simple ne before the verb. But it was also fairly common to add a qualifier to reinforce the negative. Which one was chosen sometimes depended on the verb used.

For example:

…et si n’en veoit gote: in modern French, et pourtant il ne voyait goutte, and yet he couldn’t see a drop. Originally goutte was probably associated with the verb boire, to drink. In this case, the man is blind.

…li cuer des genz ne furent mie en pais: in modern French, le coeur des gens n’était pas en paix, the hearts of the people were not at peace. Mie means crumb (miette in modern French; le pain de mie is sandwich bread, with a finer crumb than traditional French bread). The implication is that there wasn’t even a crumb of peace in the hearts of the people.

…il ne repairierent pas en l’ost: in modern French, ils ne sont pas revenus à l’armée, they didn’t return to the army at all. Un pas is a step; so they didn’t take a single step to return to the army. Originally pas was used with a verb of motion, such as go, come, walk, and so on. Gradually, over the space of several centuries, this is the second element of the negative that won out over all the other possibilities.

These examples all come from an account of the Fourth Crusade, which took place in the first years of the 13th century, by one Geoffroy de Villehardouin. It’s not clear whether his document is a journal or a memoir, but he recounts the débacle of the whole undertaking and claims to be an impartial storyteller.


Un point is a dot. Ne…point now means not at all.

Rien(s) (the s belongs to the old form) comes from popular Latin ren non, literally thing not. In other words, nothing. Ne…rien still means nothing.

And there were more! But this will give you an idea. A language, in its early stages, is like modeling clay. It can be anything (well, almost). And eventually it hardens, becomes rigid, acquires rules. Grammar books make pronouncements about immutable rules.

At the same time, starting with the spoken language (which changes about 100 years earlier than the written language; at least that was true before the internet came to dominate written communication), it remains fluid, moveable. As culture changes, so does the language. New inventions and new ideas call for new names; the old words no longer suffice to express the waves of change. At any given moment, both of these forces are at work in any language.

Here’s a link for those who want a summary of the characteristics of Old French. It’s linguistically pretty heavy-duty, but still interesting:

Tomorrow, I promise, we’re back to modern French! Thanks for indulging me.

Share or bookmark this! AddInto

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s