Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
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Conceptual Distortions from Negative Descriptors

The possibility that "non-governmental" may be comprehended as "anti-governmental" in some languages

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Affixal negation: a linguistic investigation
Preliminary confirmation
Logic and philosophy: negation and negative statements

Previously published in International Associations 26, 1974, 3, pp. 150-155. Also in: Les Problèmes du Langage dans la Société Internationale (Compte rendu du colloque, Paris 28-29 mars 1974). Bruxelles, Union des Associations Internationales, 1975, pp. 178-181


A number of concepts used in the description of features considered to be of importance in international discourse are represented by terms with negative prefixes. Examples are :

It is assumed that there are no special difficulties or distortions associated with the use of a negative prefix when the term is translated into some language, especially of the non-indo- European groups which are the mother tongues of 50 % of the world's population. It is the purpose of this paper to look at some of the possible difficulties on the basis of available evidence. In the first section, use is made of a linguistic investigation of negative prefixes. In the following section, some evidence collected for this paper is presented. A final section draws attention to the concern of philosophers and logicians for the difficulties associated with negative statements and concepts of negation.

Affixal negation: a linguistic investigation

An extensive study of the use of negative prefixes in several languages has been undertaken by Karl E. Zimmer. Although the study failed to detect any linguistic universels directly relevant to our concern, it does bring together information which raises questions concerning the possible universal use " of terms such as "non-governmental".

A widely-used distinction is made in logic between "contradictory" and "contrary" terms. This is clarified in the following in connection with the use of two negative affixes : "The modification in sense brought about by the addition of the prefix is generally that of a simple negative : "unworthy" equals " not worthy", etc. The two terms are thus contradictory terms. But very often the prefix produces a " contrary" term or at any rate what approaches one : unjust (and injustice) generally imply the opposite of just (justice); unwise means more than not wise and approaches foolish, unhappy is not far from miserable, etc.".

This raises the question as to whether the addition of "non-" to "governmental" results in a meaning other than a simple negative - a contrary rather than a contradictory sense. The study notes, however, in connection with the definition of "non-" : "In our terms, non- generally expresses contradictory opposition, while in- and un often express contrary opposition. The fact that most derivatives in non- are not compared and are not modified by very, etc., also supports the interpretation of non- as a contradictory negative". On this basis we may conclude that the situation is satisfactorily neutral in English (The question of the interpretation of nongovernmental in society is set aside.).

The equivalent situation in other European languages should now be examined. Again the study finds that in French * non-, like English non-, seems to have a consistent contradictory negative function". And in German "In its préfixai use nicht- is comparable to English non-; like the latter it seems to be confined almost entirely to the creation of terms that are contradictory opposites of the unprefixed terms". The consequence of using the Russian equivalent however is not so clear. The prefix ne- "is thus described as having both a contrary and a contradictory negating function. In a sense it can be said to fulfill the functions of English un- (both as a contrary and as a contradictory negative), and also of English non- ... Contrasts such as that between unchristian and non-Christian (or between unchristlich and nicht- christlich) cannot be expressed in Russian in just this way, i.e. by a contrast between prefixes". Presumably the same applies to undemocratic and non-democratic, and "un-governmental" and non-governmental. The study then goes on to examine the situation in some non-Indo-European languages which have negative prefixes :

Finnish : " While there are some adjectives... in which epa- corresponds rather clearly to English non-, it has... the function of English un- rather than of non- in such adjectives as epäkristillinen 'unchristian'... In some nominal derivatives epä- has the clearly pejorative function we have encountered in German un- as in Unmensch..."

Yoruba : Here "it is possible to derive, by means of the prefix a/- abstract nouns expressing some sort of opposition to the meaning of the verb... Whether the semantic effect of the negative affix in Yoruba, which operates across a form-class boundary and which often produces forms glossed with "lack of...", is to be considered comparable to that of such affixes as English un- in the derivation of adjectives from other adjectives is a question that must remain open".

Japanese : "Japanese has borrowed a number of Chinese morphemes which... are used in a way quite similar to the kind of negative affixes we find in the Indo-European languages. These borrowed negative morphemes are hi- (Chinese fei), fu- (Chinese pu), and mu- (Chinese wu). hi- (as a prefix) is glossed as non-, un-, anti- in the dictionary used for this study; it appears in forms such as hikinzoku 'non-metals', hisentoin 'non-combatants', hikirisutokyo-teki 'anti-Christian'...

Thus, whilst Finnish, Russian and Yoruba draw attention to the conceptual ambiguities of negative prefixes in some languages, the Japanese example supplies us with the tirst indication that this ambiguity may be such as to render the concept "non-" in- distinguishable from " anti-" in other languages, when translation is attempted. " Non-governmental" may indeed be understood In part as " anti- governmental".

Preliminary confirmation

This possibility of ambiguity was reinforced by a recent article on the use of "fei" in Chinese. This word, as mentioned above, is the equivalent to the Japanese "hi". Sian L Yen notes that:

"... There may be some kind of ambiguity that is allowed in English sentences with a particle of negation, but is not allowed in Classical Chinese. And, if this is so, there is a chance that one can adequately translate into English Classical Chinese sentences with a particle of negation - in this case fei - without understanding the precise function of the negative particle".

It so happens that "fei" is the word used in Article 71 of the Charter of the United Nations which deals with the relations of the Economic and Social council with international nongovernmental organizations (see inset). Pursuing this lead we examined some of the uses of the word as was done in the case of the Japanese example. The lack of distinction between "non", "un", "anti-", "ill-" is fairly evident from the examples. A more detailed study of a Japanese dictionary gave the results shown in the table (below). This confirms the possibility of " pejorative" confusion noted above.

Comparison of usage of "non" versus "anti"

Terms under "hi-"
(Japanese for : non-, un-, anti-)

Terms under "non-"

Terms under "anti-"

using "hi"

not using "hi"

using "hi"

not using "hi"

unpatriotic, disloyal, undutiful
not for sale
off duty inartistic inordinate ambition;
evil design; ulterior motive
inhumanity; unjust;
senselessness; irrationality


Similarly, examination of a Russian dictionary gave "ne-", which is used by the United Nations as the negative prefix for non-governmental, as "un-, in-, non-, mis-, dis-". An Albanian dictionary gives :

anti- kundër- or kundra-
non- jo- or mos- anti-consitutional kundër kustitutues or jo kustitutuer

Note that "jo" can be translated as "anti-"

Further investigation: A simple experiment has been devised which should give further information on the possibility of confusion between "non" and "anti". Results will be reported in an article in a later issue of International Associations.

Logic and philosophy: negation and negative statements

To persist in defining "Y" as non- governmental (namely non-X), would appear to be a plain confession of inability to conceptualize - Y". In practice it means that "Y" can only be conceived of in relation to the X, or governmental, attributes which it " lacks". This use of language pre- structures any consideration of Y organizations into a secondary status or a relationship of dépendance on X organizations. Similarly with non- white, non-European, non-Aryan and non-violence. In each case it is X which is evoked, not Y - contrary to the apparent intent.

The question as to whether descriptors of the type "non-X" provide meaningfully adequate and unambiguous descriptors does not yet appear to have been resolved in Western philosophy and logic. There are schools of thought and extreme or incompatible claims, but the debate has largely been set aside. This does not mean that the matter is considered trivial. The postulated existence of "negative facts" provoked a near-riot in Harvard in 1917. For our purposes it may be sufficient to highlight some points made in R.A. Stanley's recent review of studies of negation :

1. The account of negative statements contained in Plato's Sophist analyzes negation in terms of "difference". The statement "A is not B" should be understood as "A is different from B". This account may be considered satisfactory when the predicate is a noun, it is not so convincing in cases where the predicate is an adjective.

2. J.S. Mill makes the following remarks with respect to negative names : "Names which are positive in form are often negative in reality and others are really positive though their form is negative. The word inconvenient, for example, does not express the mere absence of convenience; it expresses a positive attribute - that of being the cause of discomfort or annoyance". "But what is meant by a negative name ? A name expressive of the absence of an attribute. So that when we affirm a negative name, what we are really predicating is absence and not presence; we are asserting, not that anything is, but that something is not; to express this operation no word seems so proper as the word denying. The fundamental distinction is between a fact and the non-existence of that fact...".

3. J.N. Keynes observes, however, that :
"Apart from the fact that the mere absence of an idea is not itself an idea, not-A cannot be interpreted to mean the absence of A in thought; for, on the contrary, it requires the presence of A in thought".

"We must agree that not-A cannot be regarded as representing any independent concept; that is to say, we cannot form any idea of not-A that negates the notion of A. It is, therefore, true that, taken literally... the formula not-A is unintelligible".
4. Ledger Wood expresses " a certain repugnance" to negative facts in the following way :
"A negative judgment refers to reality, and that which corresponds to It in reality Is either a positive or negative entity. The former alternative provides an appropriate object for the negative judgment, a negative entity, but the very notion of such an entity is almost a contradiction in terms. The latter alternative provides no appropriate object for the negative judgment and its object. In short, reality must be conceived either as excluding or as containing negative entities; and thus either the negative judgment conflicts with reality, or reality itself is absurdly conceived."
Stanley expresses suprise at the general lack of interest in negation as a topic in view of the existence of extremely opposed views on the matter. For our purposes this debate only serves to demonstrate that there are unresolved problems in connection with the use of "non-governmental" and other such descriptors.


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