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Show full table of contents The semantics of geen'no'

Section has shown that the core meaning of the negative article geen can easily be described by means of Figure 1 from Section 1.1.2, sub IIA, repeated below; its semantic contribution is normally to indicate that the intersection A ∩ B is empty. For instance, an example such as Er zwemmen geen ganzen in de vijver'There are no geese swimming in the pond' expresses that the intersection of the set of geese and the set of entities swimming in the pond is empty.

Figure 1: Set-theoretic representation of the subject-predicate relation

The discussion in the following subsections will show, however, that a simple description like this does not do full justice to the intricacies involved in the semantics of geen. Subsection I investigates the scope of the negation expressed by geen, followed in Subsection II by a discussion of geen in (non-)specific and generic noun phrases. Subsection III concludes by showing that in many cases geen may exhibit special semantic properties that may be totally unrelated to its core meaning.

[+]  I.  Negative quantification and scope

This subsection discusses the scope of the negation inherently expressed by geen. Subsection A considers the most common situation in which geen expresses sentential negation, that is, takes scope over the complete clause in which it occurs. Subsection B discusses cases of constituent negation, in which case geen simply has scope over the noun phrase containing geen. Negation can also have scope over a subpart of the noun phrase containing geen, as will be shown in Subsection C. Subsection D will show that, unlike sentential niet, geen cannot take some other constituent of the clause in its scope.

[+]  A.  Scope outside the containing noun phrase

The core semantics of geen is that of negation, but although geen forms a syntactic constituent with the noun it precedes, the scope of negation is not necessarily confined to the noun phrase; in the majority of cases, the negation in geen takes sentential scope. This is particularly clear from the fact illustrated in (205) that geen can license negative polarity items like ooit'ever' and ook maar X'any X', which can only be used in the presence of a structurally superior negative element; note that this holds regardless of whether the geen phrase is an argument, as in (205a), or an adjunct, as in (205b). That it is really the presence of geen that licenses these negative polarity items is clear from the fact that geen does not alternate with een in (205), though this would be possible in the absence of the negative polarity items.

Example 205
a. Ik zou geen/*een auto ooit aan ook maar iemand cadeau geven.
  would  no/a car  ever  to  anyone  present  give
  'No car would I ever give to anyone as a present.'
b. Ik zou geen/*een moment ook maar ergens met hem willen praten.
  would  no/a moment  anywhere  with him  want talk
  'At no time would I want to talk to him at any place.'

      The examples in (206) and (207) also support the conclusion that geen can take sentential scope. First, observe from the contrast in (206a&b) that the sentential negative adverb niet cannot occur in clause-initial position; example (206b') shows that this is even excluded if niet is pied-piped by a topicalized participial verb phrase.

Example 206
a. Ik heb die brief niet geschreven.
  have  that letter  not  written
  'I didnʼt write that letter.'
b. * Niet heb ik die brief geschreven.
b'. * [VP Niet geschreven] heb ik die brief.

Crucial for our argument is that the ungrammaticality of (206b') shows that phrases containing sentential negation cannot be topicalized (whereas this is possible in the case of constituent negation), as this allows us to conclude from the ungrammaticality of (207b) that the noun phrase geen brief expresses sentential negation. This argument is somewhat weakened, however, by the fact that the stronger form of negation geen enkele'not a single' is not subject to this restriction; we will discuss this in Subsection III.

Example 207
a. Ik heb geen brief geschreven.
  have  no letter  written
  'I didnʼt write a letter.'
b. * [NP Geen brief] heb ik geschreven.

The fact that the negation takes scope outside the noun phrase may also account for the fact that noun phrases preceded by geen is normally part of a plural noun phrase, which therefore also triggers plural agreement on the verb. This makes sense semantically given that the sentence in (208b) is simply the negation of the sentence in (208a) with a bare plural noun phrase triggering plural agreement: ¬(er lopen kinderen op straat).

Example 208
a. Er lopen kinderen op straat.
  there  walk  children  in the street
  'There are children walking in the street.'
b. Er lopen geen kinderen op straat.
  there walk no children  in  the.street
  'There are no children walking in the street.'

Note in passing that the examples in (209) show that geen can also occur in singular noun phrases, but in that case it is not just used as sentence negation. Examples (209b) is either used as the explicit denial of some earlier given proposition that a child is walking in street (“No, your wrong, there is no child walking in the street”), or it receives the somewhat special meaning “not a single”; see, respectively, Section and Subsection III for more discussion.

Example 209
a. Er loopt een kind op straat.
  there  walks  a child  in the street
  'There is a child walking in the street.'
b. Er loopt geen kind op straat.
  there  walks  no child in  the.street
  Proposition denial: 'No, It isnʼt true that a child is walking in the street'
  “Not a single” reading: 'There isnʼt a single child walking in the street.'
[+]  B.  Scope over the containing noun phrase: contrastive constructions

In contrastive contexts, geen may be used as a constituent negator. If the noun phrase is singular, geen usually alternates with niet een, as is illustrated in (210a), but if the noun phrase is plural the use of geen is the only option, as shown by the (b)-examples in (210).

Example 210
a. Er is geen/niet een brief gekomen maar een pakje.
  there  is no/not a letter  come  but  a parcel
  'There came not a letter but a parcel.'
b. Er zijn geen brieven gekomen maar een pakje.
  there  are  no letters  come  but  a parcel
b'. * Er zijn niet Ø/een brieven gekomen maar een pakje.
  there  are  not  Ø/a  letters  come  but  a parcel

Topicalization of a geen phrase expressing constituent negation, as in (211a), is at least marginally possible, and seems to lead to a better result than topicalization of the negative adverb niet and its associate noun phrase.

Example 211
a. ? Geen brief heb ik geschreven maar een memo.
  no letter  have  written  but  a memo
  'I wrote not a letter but a memo.'
b. ?? Niet een brief heb ik geschreven maar een memo.
  not a letter  have  written  but  a memo

Using geen in contrastive contexts is excluded if the noun phrase functions as the complement of a PP. In fact, Haeseryn et al. (1997: 1657) noticed that geen-phrases occur as the complement of PPs in idiomatic constructions only; see Section for more discussion.

Example 212
a. Dat moet je niet met een kwast verven, maar met een roller.
  that  must  you  not  with a brush  paint  but  with a roller
  'You shouldnʼt paint that with a brush, but with a roller.'
b. * Dat moet je met geen kwast verven, maar met een roller.
  that  must  you  with no brush  paint  but  with a roller

      The fact that geen and niet een alternate in sentences such as (210a) sharply contrasts with the lack of a similar alternation in examples like those given in(213). These examples show that, in contrast to geen, negative quantifiers/adverbs like niemand, niets, nergens and nooit cannot be used in contrastive contexts.

Example 213
a. Er is niet iemand/*niemand gekomen maar iedereen.
  there  is not somebody/nobody  come  but  everyone
  'Not somebody came but everybody.'
b. Er is niet iets/*niets misgegaan maar alles.
  there  is not something/nothing  wrong.gone  but  everything
  'Not something but everything has gone wrong.'
c. Er is niet ergens/*nergens corruptie gepleegd maar overal.
  there  is not somewhere/nowhere  corruption  committed  but  everywhere
  'Not somewhere but everywhere there was corruption committed.'
d. Er is niet ooit/*nooit corruptie gepleegd maar altijd.
  there  is not once/never  corruption  committed  but  always
  'Not once but always there has been corruption.'

      We want to emphasize that, outside of contrastive contexts such as (210), replacing geen with niet een is impossible in most cases. Thus, in a neutral sentence such as (214), it would be odd to use niet een instead of geen. This strongly suggests that geen cannot systematically be treated as a contraction of niet and the indefinite article een, as this would lead to the wrong expectation that the infelicity of (214) with niet een would be preserved if niet and een are fused into geen.

Example 214
Er is geen/#niet een brief gekomen.
  there  is no/not a letter  come
'There didnʼt come any letter.'
[+]  C.  Scope inside the containing noun phrase

The two previous subsections have shown that geen takes scope either outside the noun phrase, expressing sentential negation, or over the noun phrase that contains it, expressing constituent negation. This does not exhaust the possibilities; geen may also take scope over an attributive modifier within the noun phrase rather than over the noun phrase as a whole. We find an example of this type in (215a), which alternates with the semantically more transparent (215b). While (215b) is unambiguous and has only a reading where niet negates the adjective geringe, (215a) is ambiguous between that reading and a reading in which geen negates the entire noun phrase. The latter reading comes to the fore in the unambiguous paraphrase in (215c), in which niet precedes the indefinite article.

Example 215
a. Dat is geen geringe prestatie.
  that  is  no insignificant accomplishment
b. Dat is een niet geringe prestatie.
  that  is  not insignificant  accomplishment
c. Dat is niet een geringe prestatie.
  that  is  not an insignificant accomplishment

Note that, if one wanted to treat geen as the contraction of niet and the indefinite article een, one would have to assume that the order of niet and een is immaterial; both een niet in (215b) and niet een in (215c) should be able to “fuse” into geen.
      Scopal ambiguity of a similar nature to that in (215a) is found in noun phrases of the type illustrated in (216a), whose ambiguity comes out in the paraphrases in (216b&c). Depending on the precise analysis of noun phrases of the type professor Van Riemsdijk (see 4.1.3 for a suggestion), either (216b) or (216c) instantiates a case in which geen takes scope over a subpart of the noun phrase it is contained by.

Example 216
a. Ik ken geen professor Van Riemsdijk.
  know  no professor  Van Riemsdijk
b. Ik ken [geen Van Riemsdijk] die professor is.
  know   no Van Riemsdijk  that  professor is
c. Ik ken [geen professor] die Van Riemsdijk heet.
  know   no professor  that  Van Riemsdijk  is.called
[+]  D.  No scope over a noun phrase external constituent

Although the previous subsection has shown that geen can be semantically associated with an element with which it does not form a constituent, such syntax/semantics mismatches are certainly not possible in just any context. In order to see this, first observe that the negative adverb niet in (217a) can be semantically construed with the adverbial phrase of manner goed'well', even though it does not form a constituent with it, which is clear from the fact that it must be stranded under topicalization. In (217b), by contrast, the negative article geen cannot be associated with the adverbial phrase; the sentence is marginally acceptable at best on a highly marked count noun reading of hitte.

Example 217
a. Ik verdraag hitte niet (goed).
  bear  heat  not well
a'. * Niet goed verdraag ik hitte.
a''. Goed verdraag ik hitte niet.
b. * Ik verdraag geen hitte goed.
  bear  no heat  well

We can conclude from this that although the scope of geen is not confined to that of its noun phrase but can be extended to the clause or limited to a subpart of the noun phrase, geen is still tied up with its noun phrase in the sense that it cannot be semantically associated with other constituents of the clause.

[+]  II.  Specificity and genericity

Noun phrases containing geen pattern syntactically with the indefinite noun phrase. This is clear, for example, from the fact illustrated in (218a) that subjects containing geen must occur with the expletive er; apart from example (218a'), which is acceptable on the special “not a single” reading that will be discussed in Subsection IIIA, all primed examples are degraded. Note that this is not due to the restriction on topicalization discussed in Subsection IA, given that subjects need not be topics; cf. Section 8.1.2, sub II.

Example 218
a. Er is vandaag geen brief verstuurd.
  there  is today  no letter  sent
  'No letter was sent today.'
a'. # Geen brief is vandaag verstuurd.
b. Er spelen vandaag geen kinderen op straat.
  there  play  today  no children  in the.street
  'There are no children playing in the street.'
b'. * Geen kinderen spelen vandaag op straat.
c. Er stond gisteren geen melk in de ijskast.
  there  stands  yesterday  no milk  in the fridge
  'There was no milk in the fridge yesterday.'
c'. * Geen melk stond gisteren in de ijskast.

Another finidng in support of the indefiniteness of noun phrases containing geen is that they cannot be scrambled across certain adverbials: cf. Section 8.1.3, sub IC. This is illustrated by the unacceptability of scrambled counterparts of the primeless examples in (218), given in (219).

Example 219
a. *? Er is geen brief vandaag verstuurd.
b. * Er spelen geen kinderen vandaag op straat.
c. * Er stond geen melk gisteren in de ijskast.

      It seems that noun phrases with geen behave like indefinites even in generic contexts. In order to see this, consider the generic constructions in (220). Example (220a) shows that the generic plural noun phrase must be scrambled to a position in front of the clausal adverb waarschijnlijk'probably'; cf. Section 8.1.3, sub IC. The noun phrase with geen in (220b), by contrast, cannot be placed to the left of waarschijnlijk.

Example 220
a. Hij begrijpt < formules> waarschijnlijk <*formules> niet.
  he  understands     formulae  probably  not
  'He probably doesnʼt understand formulae.'
b. Hij begrijpt <*geen formules> waarschijnlijk <geen formules>.
  he  understands      no formulae  probably
  'He probably doesnʼt understand formulae.'

      To conclude this subsection, note that negative sentences with generic bare noun phrases sometimes feature intriguing semantic differences between the variants involving niet and their counterparts with geen. Example (221a), for example, allows two subtly different lexical meanings of accepteren'to accept'; the speaker either does not wish to receive any charity, or he is opposed to the existence of charity as a phenomenon. This latter reading is conspicuously more prominent in (221b).

Example 221
a. Ik accepteer geen liefdadigheid.
  accept  no charity
b. Ik accepteer liefdadigheid niet.
  accept  charity  not
[+]  III.  Special semantics

The previous subsections have discussed the core semantics of the negative article geen. This subsection addresses a number of more or lesss specialized meaning contributions of geen. We will start our discussion with the “not a single” reading, which stays close to the core semantics of negative quantification, but we will see that there are contexts in which the semantic contribution made by geen can diverge substantially from the core meaning; negative quantification is sometimes even entirely absent in some of geenʼs uses.

[+]  A.  “Not a single” reading

The negative article geen sometimes expresses a meaning that is stronger than simple negation and which we will refer to as the “not a single” reading. This reading requires that geen be followed by some stressed element, and can sometimes be enhanced by the addition of certain elements.

[+]  1.  Geen + N

The “not a single” reading is particularly common for noun phrases in subject position, as in (222a); in non-expletive constructions, all subjects containing geen are of this type. Objects containing geen can receive this interpretation as well, and, for topicalized objects, this reading is in fact the only one available; cf. the discussion of (207).

Example 222
a. Geen schip is 100% waterdicht.
  no ship  is 100% watertight
  'Not a single ship is 100 per cent watertight.'
b. ? Geen schip levert men 100% waterdicht af.
  no ship  delivers  one  100% watertight  prt.
  'Not a single ship is 100 per cent watertight at the point of delivery.'

Prosodically, the “not a single” reading of geen phrases is directly recognizable by the fact that there is main stress on the element immediately following geen. This is often the head noun, but if an attributive adjective is present, it is the adjective that receives greatest prominence.

Example 223
a. [geen schip] is 100% waterdicht
b. [geen nieuw schip] is 100% waterdicht

Despite the fact that geen is part of the noun phrase, it can take scope outside the noun phrase, which is clear from the fact that geen can license negative polarity items like ooit; cf. Subsection IA. This is illustrated in (224a) for a subject and in (224b) for a topicalized object.

Example 224
a. Geen computerprogramma is ooit volledig storingsvrij.
  no computer.program  is ever  completely  error.free
b. ? Geen computerprogramma heeft dit bedrijf ooit storingsvrij afgeleverd.
  no computer.program  has  this company  ever  error.free  delivered
[+]  2.  Geen enkel(e) +N

The “not a single” reading of geen phrases is particularly common for subjects of comparative constructions.

Example 225
a. Geen schip vaart sneller naar Engeland dan het onze.
  no ship  sails  faster  to England  than  ours
b. Geen limonade smaakt lekkerder dan deze.
  no lemonade  tastes  nicer  than  this.one

A distinction within this class of constructions should be made, however, between comparatives like the ones in (225), where particular makes or brands of the same product type are compared, and those like (226), where two different types of product are compared. In contrast to the primeless examples, the primed examples in (226) sound distinctly odd.

Example 226
a. Een schip vaart sneller dan een luchtballon.
  a ship  sails  faster  than a hot.air.balloon
a'. ?? Geen schip vaart sneller dan een luchtballon.
  no ship  sails  faster  than a hot.air.balloon
b. Limonade smaakt lekkerder dan versgeperst sinaasappelsap.
  lemonade  tastes  nicer  than  freshly.squeezed  orange.juice
b'. ?? Geen limonade smaakt lekkerder dan versgeperst sinaasappelsap.
  no lemonade  tastes  nicer  than  freshly.squeezed  orange.juice

The messages that the primed examples in (226) intend to express can be expressed if we add the modifier enkel(e), as in (227a&b). In accordance with the generalization that main stress must be assigned to the element following geen, main prosodic prominence is assigned to the modifier: geen enkel(e) N.

Example 227
a. Geen enkel schip vaart sneller dan een luchtballon.
  no single ship  sails  faster  than a hot.air.balloon
b. Geen enkele limonade smaakt lekkerder dan versgeperst sinaasappelsap.
  no single lemonade  tastes  nicer  than freshly.squeezed orange.juice

The modifier enkele can also be used if reference is made to specific entities, as in (228). In this use, enkele alternates with the numeral één, which will be discussed in the following subsection.

Example 228
a. Hij heeft geen enkele/één fout gemaakt.
  he has  no single/one mistake  made
  'He didnʼt make a single mistake.'
b. Ik heb geen enkel/één boek verkocht.
  I have  no single/one book  sold
  'I havenʼt sold a single book.'
[+]  3.  Geen één + N

The “not a single” reading can also be emphasized by adding the element één, as in the primeless examples in (229). These examples alternate with the constructions with the negative adverb niet in the primed examples, which clearly involve the numeral één. Note that in both constructions, negation is construed with the numeral and that emphasis is put on the fact that the number of mistakes made/books sold is zero; as a result, main accent must also be assigned to the numeral in the primed examples.

Example 229
a. Hij heeft geen één fout gemaakt.
  he  has  no  one mistake  made
  'He didnʼt make a single mistake.'
a'. Hij heeft niet één fout gemaakt.
  he  has  not  one mistake  made
b. Ik heb geen één boek verkocht.
  have  no  one book  sold
  'I havenʼt sold a single book.'
b'. Ik heb niet één boek verkocht.
  have  not  one book  sold
[+]  4.  Geen ene + N

The “not a single” interpretation of geen is the one normally found in the numerous idiomatic constructions featuring geen phrases. The idiomatic noun phrases in (230) have the prosody characteristic of the “not a single” cases discussed above: main accent is assigned to the element following geen. The primed examples show that the idiomatic examples also pattern with the non-idiomatic ones in allowing topicalization.

Example 230
a. Hij heeft er geen jota/moer van begrepen.
  he  has  there  no  iota/nut  of  understood
  'He didnʼt understand a word of it.'
a'. Geen jota/moer heeft hij ervan begrepen.
b. Hij heeft geen vinger/hand/poot uitgestoken.
  he  has  no  finger/hand/leg  stuck.out
  'He didnʼt lift a finger.'
b'. Geen vinger/hand/poot heeft hij uitgestoken.

Addition of enkel(e) is impossible in these idiomatic examples; however, geen can often be intensified by the addition of schwa-inflected ene'one', as in (231a). By way of contrast, in non-idiomatic examples such as (231b), geen ene cannot be used; only the uninflected form één or the modifier enkel(e) can be used.

Example 231
a. Hij heeft er geen ene/*enkele/*één jota/moer van begrepen.
  he  has  there  no  one/single/one  iota/nut  of  understood
b. Hij heeft geen enkele/één/*ene vraag begrepen.
  he  has  no  single/one/one  question  understood
  'He didnʼt understand a single question.'
[+]  B.  Negative concord

A number of constructions featuring geen exhibit so-called negative concord, that is, the multiple occurrence of negative elements with a single negative interpretation as their combined effect; unlike in cases of double negation, there is no canceling out of negation. These constructions occur in the spoken language only, and some of these may not belong to the standard variety.

[+]  1.  Niks geen N

One case that probably belongs to standard spoken Dutch is illustrated in (232a). Here, geen itself is the negator, being modified by the negative pronoun niks (the colloquial variant of niets, which seems impossible here). Adding niks to geen has the effect of intensifying the negation, comparable to that achieved by English at all in the prose translation. The more “standard” way of realizing this intensification is with the aid of helemaal in (232b); cf. Section 7.2.

Example 232
a. Dat was niks/*?niets geen leuke tijd.
  that  was  nothing/nothing  no nice time
  'That wasnʼt a particularly nice time at all.'
b. Dat was helemaal geen leuke tijd.
  that  was altogether  no nice time

Not all instances of helemaal intensifying geen can be replaced with niks, however, as will be clear from the pair in (233). It seems that positive evaluative semantics is essential; either there is a positively evaluative attributive adjective present, like leuke in (232), or the head noun itself has an inherent or contextually invokable positively evaluative interpretation; cf. pretje'fun' versus probleem'problem' in (233).

Example 233
a. Dat was helemaal/niks geen pretje.
  that was  altogether/nothing  no fundim
b. Dat was helemaal/*niks geen probleem.
  that was  altogether/nothing  no problem
[+]  2.  Nooit geen N

A highly popular case of negative concord in the non-standard spoken language is given in example (234a). In current normative grammars and style books, the appreciation of this construction varies. Some claim that the two negations always cancel each other out in Standard Dutch and therefore disapprove and/or discourage the use of (233a) on the negative concord reading, and strongly favor the use of the unambiguous construction in (227b). Others, on the other hand, consider the use of negative concord as a normal way of emphasizing negation; for relevant citations, see taaladvies.net/taal/advies/vraag/584.

Example 234
a. Ik gebruik nooit geen zout.
  use  never  no salt
  Double negation reading: 'I never use no salt.'
  Negative concord reading: 'I never use any salt.'
b. Ik gebruik nooit zout.
  use  never  salt
  'I never use (any) salt.'

The two readings of (234a) are associated with different intonation patterns. The double negation reading is obtained by assigning stress peaks to both nooit and (especially) geen, as in (235a). In the case of negative concord, on the other hand, there is no significant accent on geen, and nooit only receives heavy accent if it is used contrastively, as in (235b).

Example 235
a. Double negation reading: Ik gebruik nooit geen zout.
b. Negative concord reading: Ik gebruik nooit/nooit geen zout.

      Other illustrations of the negative concord construction are given in (236a), which are all adapted from actually occurring examples on the internet. Examples (236b-d) show that negative concord is possible for negative elements other than geen as well, although it seems nooit geen is by far the most widespread case of negative concord.

Example 236
a. Ik heb nooit geen zin in seks.
  have  never  no liking  in sex
  'I never feel like having sex.'
b. Ik ga nooit niet meer in de achtbaan.
  go never  not  anymore  in the roller.coaster
  'Iʼll never go in the roller coaster anymore.'
c. Hij heeft nooit niks om PRO me gegeven.
  he  has  never  nothing  comp  me cared
  'He never cared about me.'
d. Chatten is leuk, maar er is bijna nooit niemand.
  chatting is nice  but  there  is  nearly  never  no.one
  'Chatting is nice, but there is virtually never someone there.'
[+]  3.  (Nog) geeneens geen N

A third context in which geen occurs in a negative concord environment is the non-standard exclamative construction in (237a), in which geen shows up twice; once as the negative quantifier of the noun phrase in object position, and once as a subpart of the formally negative element geeneens'not even'. The second occurrence probably involves a spurious use of geen: it alternates with the form in (237b), where the noun phrase is non-negative so that negation must be expressed by geeneens. In Standard Dutch (237a) would come out as (237c), in which negation is expressed with the aid of niet eens'not even' (lit.: not once). The numbers to the right of examples (237a&b) indicate the number of hits that resulted from a Google search (12/1/2015) on the sequences in square brackets. The number to the right of (237c) indicates the number of hits for the string [heb niet eens een]; we included the verb hebben in this search because leaving it out resulted in too much noise in the search result. The general picture resulting from our search will be evident, however.

Example 237
a. ... en ik heb (nog) [geeneens geen] auto!
non-standard: 31
b. ... en ik heb (nog) [geeneens een] auto!
non-standard: 225
c. ... en ik heb (nog) [niet eens een] auto!
standard: 303
  ... and  have  still   not even  a car
  '... and I donʼt even have a car at all (yet)!'
[+]  C.  Evaluative use

The use of geen can invoke evaluative semantics on noun phrases that are not otherwise evaluative in nature. This is what happens in (238a&b), where the negation of leven'life' by geen results in an interpretation according to which an emphatically negative evaluation is attributed to life, alternatively expressible with the aid of combinations of an adjective and a noun (either compound or phrasal), as in the primed examples.

Example 238
a. Dat is toch geen leven!
  that  is  prt  no life
a'. een rotleven
b. Zo heb je toch geen leven!
  so  have  you  prt  no life
b'. een vreselijk leven
  terrible  life

Geen phrases of this sort only occur in predicative position or in the complement of hebben'to have'. This can be illustrated by the examples in (239): whereas (239a&b) do have an evaluative interpretation, this is not the case in (239c).

Example 239
a. Ik vind dit geen weer!
  consider  this  no weather
  'I consider this horrible weather'
b. We hebben weer eens geen weer!
  we  have  again once  no weather
  'Weʼre having horrible weather once more.'
c. # Ze voorspellen geen weer!
  they  forecast  no weather

A couple more idiomatic examples can be found in (240). Example (240b) differs from the earlier examples in that it involves a positive evaluation: geen combines with a substance noun in which the whole noun phrase functions as an idiomatic expression meaning “not a small thing, quite something”. Cases like these come pretty close to litotes, that is, cases in which negation is used to emphatically express the opposite of what is expressed by the negated element; cf. Dat is niet niks'That is quite something'.

Example 240
a. Dat is geen gezicht/porum!
  that  is no sight
  'That looks ugly, terrible.'
b. Dat is geen kattenpis.
  that  is no  cat.pee
  'That is not a small thing, quite something.'
[+]  D.  Degree reading

Measure phrases of time and distance, like tien minuten'ten minutes' in (241a) and tien kilometer'ten kilometers' in (241b), can be combined with geen to yield an interpretation which can be paraphrased as “less than X”. The adverbial element nog is typically present alongside geen in such cases, though it seems that it is not strictly necessary in all cases; while in (241a) leaving nog out would be awkward, in (241b) it does not seem entirely impossible.

Example 241
a. Na nog geen tien minuten brak de hel los.
  after yet no ten minutes  broke  the hell  loose
  'After less than ten minutes, hell broke loose.'
b. Die boerderij ligt nog geen tien kilometer van het stadscentrum.
  that farmhouse  lies  yet no ten kilometers  from the town center
  'That farmhouse is less than ten kilometers away from the town center.'

An interpretatively somewhat different case of the same type is given in (242) from the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (item geen). Here the combination of geen and the numeral duizend has an interpretation which can be paraphrased as “not even a thousand”.

Example 242
Simson deed voor geen duizend Filistijnen onder.
  Simson  did  for no thousand Philistines  under
'Samson was not inferior even to a thousand Philistines.'
[+]  E.  Non-negative questions

In many of the examples given above, it seems that the core meaning of geen as a negative quantifier is lost. A particular striking illustration of this fact is provided by examples of the type in (243), where accent does not fall on geen.

Example 243
a. Zijn dat geen courgettes?
  are  that  no zucchinis
  'Those are zucchinis, arenʼt they?'
b. Is dat geen leuk idee?
  is  that  no nice idea
  'That is a nice idea, isnʼt it?'

That these are not negative questions is evident from the fact that the speaker uttering a question of the type in (243a) anticipates a positive answer. This is explicitly acknowledged in the answer in (244a) by the addition of the adverb inderdaad'indeed'. A negative answer is of course possible but not anticipated by the speaker, which is clear from the fact that including the adverb inderdaad in the reply in (244b) is pragmatically awkward.

Example 244
a. Ja, dat zijn inderdaad courgettes.
  yes  that  are  indeed  zucchinis
b. Nee, dat zijn (#inderdaad) geen courgettes.
  no  that  are  indeed  no zucchinis

Note, however, that the answer in (244b) with inderdaad is only out of place as a reply to (243a) if this question is assigned the prosodic contour typical of questions of this type, with main accent on courgettes followed by an acutely rising intonation; there is also a truly negative interpretation for (243a) available, in which geen receives heavy accent, for which (244b) with inderdaad does count as a pragmatically felicitous reply.
      On the intended, non-negative interpretation of the examples in (243), geen seems dispensable; the examples in (245) can be used in the same contexts as non-negative (243), and are equally acceptable/felicitous. The main difference seems to be that it is less obvious that the speaker anticipates a positive answer to his question.

Example 245
a. Zijn dat courgettes?
  are  that  zucchinis
b. Is dat een leuk idee?
  is  that  a nice idea

We conclude this subsection by pointing out that the negative adverb niet exhibits the same behavior as geen in that it can show up in non-negative questions. The negative adverb niet can be added to (245) to the immediate right of dat, with preservation of meaning: Zijn dat niet courgettes? or Is dat niet een leuk idee?

  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
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