Upon looking up the term 大事ない, I was, shall we say, nonplussed to learn that it could mean both "very important" and "not very important". The explanation of the "very important" meaning clears things up, though - the ない here is not 「無い」, but rather the "emphatic" 接尾語 「ない」. This is super-interesting, and explains why words like 切ない do not "mean" "切無い", which is something that had always bugged me.

What is the etymology of this "emphatic" ない? Is it related to the classical copula なり?


2 Answers 2


Just to respond to the question part, the origin of the "emphatic" ない is the Classical suffix 「なし」, and not 「なり」.


「なし」 is an adjective-forming suffix with the meanings of "truly ~~", "extremely ~~", etc.

It needs to be noted again that this has nothing to do with 「[無]{な}し」.


  • Hm, okay. I guess if it has a straightforward classical equivalent なし, we'd have a hard time tracing its etymology back any further.
    – senshin
    May 27, 2015 at 14:29

As l'électeur notes, the emphatic ない in 大事【だいじ】ない, 切【せつ】ない, and the like comes from older なし, and is an adjectival suffix indicating "having XX quality or state", where XX is the preceding root word. In terms of meaning, this is definitely not the same nashi as 無し.

There is a growing body of research, including recent works by Bjarke Frellesvig, building on the idea that Old Japanese had a copular verb ぬ. The emphatic ない is probably related to this in some way -- a number of other old root verbs have counterpart adjectives following the same vowel-shift pattern, such as あく > あかい, たく > たかい, なぐ > ながい.

Negative ない appears to have grown out of negative ぬ somehow. Although the exact derivation is unclear, the resources I've looked at (Shogakukan, Daijirin, Daijisen, among others) all agree on this point. Negative ない as a verb ending appears as an eastern-Japanese term from the late Muromachi period.

Negative ぬ must follow the incomplete form (未然形【みぜんけい】) of a verb. If it follows the stem or compounding form (連用形【れんようけい】), it instead indicates completion or resulting state -- essentially the same as emphatic ない.


This leads me to think that the negative connotations of ない originally arose from the incomplete or inchoate senses inherent to the incomplete conjugation of verbs. In my own research, it thus appears that negative ない and emphatic ない both arise from this same ぬ copula in Old Japanese.

  • You can't treat negative -(a)n- and perfective -(i)n- as the same word. They didn't just follow different stems—they had entirely different paradigms. Where the forms did overlap, forms of -(a)n- were replaced by forms from -(a)z- to avoid homophony. See Frellesvig 2010 pages 71-73, especially table 3.6. (I'll set aside for the moment whether it's possible to associate any semantics with the 未然形, which we've already discussed.)
    – user1478
    Nov 10, 2015 at 23:13
  • Frellesvig himself posits that -ず is from earlier -にす, with the に being an inflection of ぬ. I'll see if I can find that link. In addition to Frellesvig, Shogakukan gives the same derivation: [ず]の成立に関して、「ぬ」の系列の連用形「に」に動詞「す」の付いた「にす」からの変化とみられる。 Nov 11, 2015 at 0:58
  • @snailboat, your comment above is about the third paragraph; are the first two paragraphs in agreement with what you've read? Nov 11, 2015 at 1:03
  • Sorry, I shouldn't have downvoted. Most of the information seems good. I'm just not comfortable with treating the two ぬs as one word whose meaning depends on which stem they follow. Compare the paradigms: (conclusive) sakinu - sakazu, (adnominal) sakinuru - sakanu, (exclamatory) sakinure - sakane, (infinitive) sakini - sakazu, (gerund) sakinite - sakazute, (concessive) sakinuredo - sakanedo, (provisional) sakinureba - sakaneba, (conditional) sakinaba - sakazupa, (nominal) sakinuraku - sakanaku.
    – user1478
    Nov 11, 2015 at 1:27
  • 1
    If you do get a chance to see it, section 3.5.2 is where he lays out the origin of -(a)n- and -(i)n-. On p.120 he derives -(a)n- from pre-OJ *anV, with the initial /a/ originally part of the negative suffix (whether the /a/ was later reanalyzed as part of a verb stem being a separate question). And on p.123 he derives -(i)n- from an n-initial copula form (cf. no etc.), and in this case he says the initial /i/ was not part of the suffix; he also says the use of the n-initial copula as a suffix (as in -(i)n-) seems to be a later development than -(a)n- (p.121).
    – user1478
    Nov 11, 2015 at 1:54

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