The Origins of the Word “No”
Every language has a word for it. Some have many. Let’s explore the origins and meaning of no.
In English, the word no dates back to Middle English and means “not in any degree, not at all, not ever.” Though it’s a short word with only two letters, it’s actually formed from two elements, the first being the PIE (proto Indo European) root *ne- meaning “not,” and the second from the PIE root *aiw-, meaning “vital force, life, long life, eternity.”
In fact, the root *aiw- is where we get the word ever from, as well as the words eon, eternal, age, and the Old Norse word ævi, meaning “lifetime.” Thus the word no literally means, “not ever.”
I love this etymology because it shows the powerful refusal that no implies. It says, “Not now, not ever, not for my entire life, not for all eternity.”
Another formally popular refusal word in English is nay, which comes to English from the Old Norse word nei, but Old Norse got nei from the same PIE roots as no, so they’re basically the same word but nay sounds more like the original pronunciation.
Words For “No” Around the World
Many other languages use a similar sounding word to say “no” and those words all have the same etymology. In French it’s, non. In Italian, Spanish, and Nepalese, no. In Portuguese, nāo. In Russian and Serbian, net. In Polish, nie. In German, nein. In Bosnian, Croatian, Czech, and Latvian, it’s ne. In Ukranian,
ni. In Danish and Swedish, nej. In Icelandic and Norwegian, nei. In Persian, næh. In Hindi, nahin. In Punjabi, nahīṁ. In Bengali, nā. In Latin, nihil. In Irish, níl.
Why is Greek Different?
Then Greek comes along and is like, how about we make our word for “yes” be nai just to confuse the rest of Europe! Their word for “no” is ochi, which actually has the same PIE root *ne- that no uses, but rather than combining it with *aiw-, it was combined with *ko which is a root that’s used to form words having to do with pointing out things, for example, who, what, him, her, that sort of thing.
In the Maori language, the word for “no” is kāo, or kāore. This word is also used when making grand statements about things, for example, “How great is my anger!”
In Welsh, the word is either ni, nid (for vowels) or dim, and which one is used is entirely context related. It’s one of those “fun” linguistic curiosities where you really have to be a native speaker to understand when to use dim vs ni/nid and using one instead of the other would sound really weird, but it’s tough to explain why to a non-native speaker.
In Middle Welsh, dim meant “anything,” but it became common to use it to reinforce negative statements like, “she was anything but frail.” So it wound up as an additional way to say “no.”
How Do You Say “No” in the Languages You Speak?
When did you last use the powerful word NO in your life? Did it make you feel empowered or did it make you feel bad? How do you say “no” in the languages you speak?
I’d love to learn more about the etymology of words in more non-European languages. It’s often a challenge to investigate etymology in languages I’m not familiar with. Translations are possible, but diving into the construction and history of words isn’t easy for a non-native speaker. My curious mind often calls me to try though!
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